Five EU states criticize Apple and Google 'imposing technical standards' over contact tracing

Swiss Covid
Swiss Covid (Image credit: EPFL)

What you need to know

  • Five EU states have written a letter about contact tracing apps.
  • Without mentioning Apple and Google by name, they were highly critical of the companies.
  • They suggested Apple and Google were "imposing technical standards", calling the move a misstep and a missed opportunity.

Five EU states have come together, penning a passive-aggressive letter clearly aimed at Apple and Google over their contact tracing technology.

FAQ: What is the Google-Apple COVID-19 (coronavirus) Exposure Notifications system?

In the letter, titled "Tracing Apps for a European way out of the crisis," ministers from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal highlighted the need for a joint effort to help restore normality to Europe, particularly when it comes to digital and technological solutions. The letter states:

Based on the works of epidemiologists, we see technology as a useful tool of our time. Warning and tracing applications are important elements in alerting people who were in contact with infected people. They can limit the spreading of the disease and break transmission chains by speeding up the notification process where it is difficult to alert one's contacts in everyday life situations.

The letter highlights the need to create effective cross-border solutions, and emphasized that all technical solutions be "developed in accordance with EU and national data protection and privacy legislation and according to shared principles." Further stating:

We are committed to developing voluntary, privacy-preserving, and open-source applications.

Whilst not mentioning Apple or Google by name, the letter is critical of "digital global players," and given the tone of the letter, it cannot be referring to anyone else.

We recognise, however, that the technical and ethical discussions happening around the development of tracing apps are posing some challenges regarding the way Europe defines its relationship with digital global players. In a time like this, when the use of technology is critical to fight this global crisis, as Governments, we expect the technology companies to take into account the countries' overall wellbeing and needs when setting digital standards. The use of digital technologies must be designed in a way that we, as democratically elected Governments, evaluate and judge it both acceptable for our citizens and compliant with our European values.

The ministers state, "We consider that questioning this right by imposing technical standards, represents a misstep and a missed opportunity to further an open collaboration between Governments and the private sector." The letter goes on to argue that states and companies should collaborate to recover from the pandemic and that "Digital sovereignty is the basis for Europe's sustainable competitiveness."

The letter is, of course, seemingly some kind of guilt trip towards Apple and Google, who have staunchly defend user privacy in the face of governments throughout the world who seem intent on violating it with central databases, or even GPS tracking. The strange inclusion here is Germany, however, which u-turned on a centralized system and has since come out in full support of Apple and Google's technology and decentralized tracing. The rhetoric of the letter suggests that the EU believes that Apple and Google are somehow exercising power as private companies over the democratic will of Europe and their elected representatives. Several EU countries including France have pushed for Apple and Google to relax their requirements for privacy to make their contact tracing apps work properly, a dangerous erosion of user privacy the EU has previously fought to defend.

Have you listened to this week's Android Central Podcast?

Android Central

Every week, the Android Central Podcast brings you the latest tech news, analysis and hot takes, with familiar co-hosts and special guests.

  • Subscribe in Pocket Casts: Audio
  • Subscribe in Spotify: Audio
  • Subscribe in iTunes: Audio
Stephen Warwick