From 30 September, the Coronalert app will be available in Belgium and VUB encourages you to download it. The free app is an aid for contact tracing, so it will help slow down the spread of the virus. The app will warn anyone who was in close contact with someone who tested positive and will advise you about what you should do to protect yourself and others. But what about privacy, in times like these when everyone is fishing for personal information online? We asked VUB Professor Rosamunde Van Brakel, who has been holding the Chair of Surveillance Studies, established March 2020.
You are kind of considered our ambassador of the app.
RVB (smiles): "I would not want to call myself that, but I am a member of a study group that worked on the app. Bart Preneel, KU Leuven Professor, is the real ambassador. He presented the proposal for this type of app to the government and put together a study group of experts from different universities. I advised that group and organised a public consultation during which we asked for feedback online about the privacy statement and about the technical and social elements concerning the app. Our intention was to work in a democratic way while the corona app was developed. The public and experts from outside of the study group as well as the government also had a say in it. There was a lot of feedback on the privacy statement, which was processed immediately while creating the new version."
The issue of privacy is in your field?
"Partly. I am not a privacy jurist, I am a criminologist and I look at the social and ethical impact of new technologies. Privacy is one part of the broad spectrum of impact new technologies can have on society."
To what extent should we be worried about privacy while using the app?
"The app was developed with the idea that it should be as privacy-friendly as possible. Professor Preneel is well-known in the field of cryptography and technological solutions concerning privacy. He was involved in the development of a technical protocol, DP3T, a collaboration between computer specialists and cryptography specialists in Europe. During the development of that protocol, privacy and security were central. One of the main privacy safeguards is that the app is decentralised. That means no data is kept in a central database by the government. The pseudo-anonymous data stays in your phone and is not collected. The app will be there for as long as the pandemic is there. Afterwards, the app cannot be used anymore.
A second reason why the app is privacy-friendly, is because no personal data will be collected and your location will not be saved. If you have installed the app and you meet someone else with the app in the same space and they test positive, this person can indicate that. Then, all other people who have been in contact with that person will receive a notification about it on their phone. The signals are given via bluetooth. That’s all the app does. Finally, the instalment of the app is completely voluntary and you can choose to delete the app and your data in it at any time.”
Did the app not get built on something Apple as well as Google had already developed?
“Partly. The DP3T protocol had already been developed in Europe, by a consortium of European researchers, before Apple and Google proposed their solution. But to guarantee widespread use, it was necessary to work together with Apple and Google and in the app, we use the Exposure Notification System from Apple and Google.”
Why can’t Apple and Google guarantee privacy?
“They say they do, and in the case of Apple I do believe them, privacy is part of their business model. Google’s model is a completely different one. There are different lawsuits against them in Europe, because they don’t comply with the Data Protection Regulation in Europe. In the Android system, you also have to allow location services to use the app. Anyway, no app is ever one hundred percent safe. The European governments don’t have a lot of control over what those companies do. However, it will be checked by an independent surveillance commission, which will guarantee as much as possible that citizens’ privacy is protected.”
The beta version of the coronalert app was tested by ten thousand people, the official app will be launched on 30 September. From that date, you can download the app for free at www.coronalert.be, users will stay anonymous.