Gov't plan to use apps to track Covid-19 raises privacy concerns

The government wants to track and curb the spread of coronavirus Covid-19 using special apps to trace who was in contact with a confirmed patient. Parliamentarians from coalition party D66 and opposition party PvdA worry about what this will mean for citizens' privacy.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Minister Hugo de Jonge of Public Health said the government is looking into two different apps. One that identifies who an infected person had contact with, and one that monitors the symptoms of coronavirus patients. The government is looking into several existing apps being tested in other countries and the Netherlands, NOS reports.

For the app meant to track who everyone who carries the virus had contact with, the cabinet is looking at initiatives in Austria and Germany. Each phone transmits a unique number via Bluetooth. The app tested in Germany only stores on your own phone which unique numbers - and therefore people - have been in your area. If you turn out to be infected, the app then messages those numbers to notify them that they may be infected too. This specific app does not have a server where all location data is collected centrally, avoiding those privacy concerns, according to the broadcaster. 

"Normally [municipal health service] GGD does this contact research, but now that we are going to test a lot more, it will no longer be possible," De Jonge said. "This app should support the GGD in this. People who hear through such an app that they had contact with an infected person must be quarantined for two weeks, until they are sure that they are not infected."

That involves the symptom tracking app. For that the government is looking at an already existing app from the OLVG hospital in Amsterdam. The app prompts you to answer questions about your symptoms like fever, shortness of breath, sore throat, and other cold and flu-like complaints. Fifty hospital employees then check the entered data against RIVM guidelines. Diagnosis via this app is not watertight, pulmonologist Paul Bresser said to NOS. "But after people fill out a questionnaire, we can at least remove concerns about the question 'do I have it or not?' People who are likely to be infected on the basis of their symptoms are advised to stay indoors until the symptoms are over."

While these apps can help health services track and map the spread of Covid-19, they do raise privacy concerns. D66 parliamentarian Kees Verhoeven called the use of such an instrument "far reaching". He wants the collection and use of, for example location data, to be temporary, reversible, voluntary, and targeted - not data mining on a large scale. The PvdA also said that the government's plan raises many privacy questions. "Civil rights and privacy are too precious to put aside without guarantees," the party said.

Minister De Jonge stressed that the app will only be used if privacy can be guaranteed. The Dutch Data Protection Authority also told NOS that such an app can only be used if the data is stored anonymously. "All proposals for these types of apps will first be checked by the Dutch Data Protection Authority," a spokesperson said to the broadcaster.