WARSAW: Governments across Europe are turning to technology to track the spread of the coronavirus and monitor people under quarantine, an approach that seeks to learn from Asia but is also putting the region’s privacy rules to the test.

Applications are being developed for people to report their symptoms to doctors and researchers; to trace and model the spread of the flu-like virus; and ensure that those under quarantine stay at home.

Yet progress has been patchy, there is scant coordination, and privacy advocates caution there is a trade-off between any benefits to public health and digital surveillance that the European Union’s privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), seeks to prevent.

Take Poland: the government has just launched a smartphone app, called Home Quarantine, for citizens returning from abroad who have since March 15 been required to self-isolate for two weeks.

To register, they upload personal details and a photo. They are then sent reminders via text message and should respond within 20 minutes by uploading a new selfie. This is verified by facial recognition and its location stamp is checked against the registered address.

Kamil Pokora, a product manager who has just returned to Gdansk from a holiday in Thailand, said police were checking in on him, as is mandatory. He is also using Home Quarantine, which is voluntary, but finds that it doesn’t work properly.

Poland’s Personal Data Protection Office, responsible for enforcing the GDPR, said it was not consulted about Home Quarantine. Spokesman Adam Sanocki said it would monitor the deployment and, should it find irregularities, would take action to ensure personal data are protected.

Asked about the criticisms, Poland’s digital ministry said it constantly monitored the system and improved it when necessary, helped by feedback from users.

Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on Wednesday the government planned to make Home Quarantine compulsory for everyone under quarantine.

Home Quarantine copies the proactive and, so far, effective approach taken by Taiwan, which has just upgraded its arsenal with a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” to keep at-risk individuals at home.

Taiwan, which has one of the lowest coronavirus tolls in Asia, already requires arrivals from abroad to download a questionnaire and report the airport they came from, their 14-day travel history and health symptoms.

Berlin-based privacy expert Frederike Kalth­euner, a tech policy fellow at the Mozilla Foundation, said there needed to be clear evidence tech solutions were worth privacy compromises: “In other words: we need to know that these tools actually work.”.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2020