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Government changes the Corona app

Berlin. A dispute about the development of the German corona tracing app, which has recently become increasingly intense, only ended on Sunday; now the federal government has commissioned Telekom and SAP with the development of a tracing app. When it is ready for the market, it is to be published by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). It is still unclear when the application can be launched. It is clear, however, that the app should follow the concept of decentralized data storage.

The federal government surprisingly announced this change of course on Sunday, which until then had been an advocate of a central storage approach. With its change of course, the federal government wants to create trust and increase the acceptance of the planned app.

The concept of central data storage, which was promoted by the European consortium PEPP-PT, recently came under heavy fire because of its data protection concept. PEPP-PT should form a software framework that could have been integrated into national Corona apps. Members of the Chaos Computer Club described the approach as "highly problematic", while scientists warned against "unprecedented surveillance".

No approach for smartphone giants

The difference between the two concepts is basically whether the checking of contacts with sick people takes place decentrally on the smartphones or centrally on a server. The systems otherwise both work with the help of Bluetooth: If people stay in critical proximity for a long period of time, their smartphones exchange individual identification numbers. If a person subsequently tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, the risk contact persons will be informed via app. The aim is for them to be tested for SARS-CoV-2 and to go into voluntary quarantine. "The controversy that existed had the potential to reduce the acceptance of this app," said government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Monday in Berlin.

Acceptance and trust are one thing. However, the specifications of the Apple and Google corporations, whose operating systems are installed on the majority of the most popular smartphones, are likely to have been just as important. The highlight: iOS and Android only support decentralized approaches and do not want to open their interfaces for centralized approaches.

In fact, the government's relentless response met with an overall positive response from the opposition and academia. Tenor: It is important that there is now clarity in the data protection concept of the tracing app. According to the government, the possibility of citizens being able to transmit data for epidemiological research and quality assurance to the RKI voluntarily and in pseudonymised form should also be integrated into the new software framework.

The crux of the matter is acceptance

However, the discussion cannot be concluded that easily: A second point of contention that is currently boiling up again and again is the question of whether the use of the Corona app should be voluntary or mandatory. Health Minister Jens Spahn and Head of the Chancellery, Helge Braun, expressly emphasize in a communication that an approach is being pursued “which is based on voluntariness, complies with data protection regulations and guarantees a high level of IT security”. The European Data Protection Committee recently clearly positioned itself in a guideline on the development of tracing apps in connection with COVID-19: A tracing app can only be legitimized if it is voluntary and if its non-use does not lead to any disadvantage. The Federal Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber welcomed this “commitment to voluntariness”. Kelber: "Both in research and in the tracking of contacts, only solutions that are transparent and work without compulsion can be successful."

But is voluntariness enough? According to experts, at least 60 percent of the population would have to use the app in order to achieve the desired effect of faster pandemic containment. Whether this can be done voluntarily is controversial. An obligation to use a tracing app would be legally on thin ice. This emerges from a report by the Federal Government's Scientific Service. According to the Infection Protection Act, the federal states could enforce cell phone tracking. The law (Paragraph 5, Paragraph 2, No. 3 IfSG) could also be interpreted in such a way that it enables a statutory ordinance by the Ministry of Health with regard to the prevention and control of communicable diseases. Whether this would be constitutional, according to the expert opinion, was "doubtful".

It is also questionable how mobile phone tracking could be reconciled with basic rights if participation in certain parts of public life, such as dining out, is linked to the use of the corresponding mobile phone app. The first suggestions for a reward are also slowly becoming loud. Union parliamentary group Vice Thorsten Frei proposed a tax bonus for users of the planned Corona warning app in the "Stuttgarter Zeitung" on Monday.

According to the government spokesman, the tracing app will be the subject of Angela Merkel's meeting with the heads of government of the countries on Thursday.