There was a “before” and there will be an “after”. As we are right in the middle of the health and economic crisis linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions are well underway on the best ways to manage the present of the future. Tomorrow will necessarily be mobile…

On 8 April, the European Commission published recommendations for the implementation of procedures and measures to develop a common European approach to the use of applications and mobile data in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Digital tools can play an important role in the gradual ending of the confinement – which will come in due course – if they comply with EU rules and are well coordinated,” says Brussels. Its focus is two-fold: firstly, on a coordinated pan-European approach to the use of mobile applications enabling citizens to take effective and more targeted measures of social distancing which can be used for alerts, prevention and the tracing of contacts, and, secondly, on a common approach to model and predict the evolution of the virus using anonymised and aggregated mobile location data.

Google and Apple hand in hand

The EU countries have developed a toolbox to enable the use of interoperable and, obviously, GDPR-compliant smartphone applications. Discussions have already started with mobile operations, with the intention of immediately covering all member states. The only limit to this laudable intention is that although the use of smartphones is widespread throughout the world, it has not yet reached a level of 100%. Users of “traditional” mobile phones would thus be excluded.

The GAFA giants have obviously not waited for the technocrats in Brussels to get ready. Apple and Google have announced the development of a joint solution based on the Bluetooth protocol that enables data exchange at short distance. The idea is to make it possible for infected persons to report this – anonymously – on the application, so that other people who come into contact with them can be informed that they have been close to an infected person. The people concerned will only receive “raw” data, without any means of physical identification, of course.

The effectiveness of these different initiatives will be based on the standardisation of exchanges that will allow all systems and platforms to communicate with each other.

“The effectiveness of these different initiatives will be based on the standardisation of exchanges that will allow all systems and platforms to communicate with each other,” says Xavier Buck, Chairman of EuroDNS / NameSpace. “In Singapore, for example, there have been some good initiatives in this area, but they are based on closed applications.”

The possible centralisation of the individual data that has been collected is at the heart of the discussions. The management of information flows between mobile terminals might not necessarily be the fastest way, but is in any case the least vulnerable one in terms of potentially inadequate and abusive use of personal data.

Lessons to be learned

Drawing the line between health efficiency and the respect for privacy is particularly complicated. “Even when identifiers are anonymised, we cannot ignore the privacy risk related to a system would centralise all data, even though this type of system would undoubtedly make the data processing more efficient,” warns Mr Buck. “One of the solutions recommended by European experts would be the use of proxy servers, that is, intermediaries that would retain information for a few minutes so that time is no longer a potential identification factor. They could also generate random data and hide IP addresses in order to avoid possible overlaps.”

Everyone agrees that certain aspects of our way of living will be different from now on.

The technological choices that are about to be made are far from trivial, because they will affect a whole section of the society of tomorrow and beyond. “Everyone agrees that certain aspects of our way of living will be different from now on. And we will have to learn the right lessons from this pandemic, as we can unfortunately expect to see more of them in the future. No politician can stop it.”

The current crisis also highlights a colossal economic issues, that of European industrial and technological sovereignty. “Everything that is going on around COVID-19 shows how dependent we still are on other continents, in particular Asia and the United States,” says Xavier Buck. “With GDPR, Europe is way ahead regarding ‘personal data’, and legitimately want to impose its own standard. But easy communication with other standards will obviously be necessary so that any system can be used. There should be no notion of border in this situation.”

New solutions

In the meantime, many are working on the subject and thinking about technological solutions to help fight the economic, health and societal impacts caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

This is exactly the reason for the resent call for projects for start-ups, “StartupsVsCovid19”, which was launched by the Luxembourg Ministry of the Economy and Luxinnovation. This is also a way of stimulating the development of technological products and services that are part of this fight and will obviously be useful also outside this context.

Supporting the digitalisation process of companies will be more essential than ever in the immediate future.

“In general, supporting the digitalisation process of companies will be more essential than ever in the immediate future,” confirms Jean-Paul Hengen, Company Relationships Manager – ICT at Luxinnovation. “And this is without taking into account that the general use of remote working and videoconferences has shown that many new options are possible in this area. This can also be a way to alleviate traffic congestion and improve mobility.” After all, the solution to one problem can also be useful to address another one…

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