Overview:

  • Policymakers and public health officials consider it essential to gather personal data — a mix of information about location, travel, symptoms and health conditions. That may be the only way to analyse information on the massive scale needed. The data privacy implications are multiple and complex.
  • The technological response to COVID-19 is mainly operating at a national level. It appears possible and desirable for the mobile ecosystem to stimulate a global response.
  • Meanwhile, local solutions for vulnerable residents need to be implemented fast. They need to be simple, easy to use and very secure. That implies a change in advance technology. It would have happened anyway, in years. It’s now happening in weeks.

Governments are developing a great demand for technology to effectively track the coronavirus and counter its spread. Meanwhile, the mobile industry is quickly rolling out new apps and solutions that could prove important to the fight. Data management, data authentication and trust to data services have become paramount in the struggle against COVID-19 and in coping with its consequences. Today’s development might also affect our future: digital passports comprehending aggregated data, from health to finance, will be part of the new normal after the pandemic, experts said in a special MEF webinar.

On April 14th 2020, MEF hosted a webinar – Covid-19, Personal Data and Privacy – to discuss the challenges and the opportunities the mobile ecosystem is facing during this unprecedented and deadly world crisis. The three experts sharing their insights were:

  • Julian Ranger, Chairman and Founder – digi.me;
  • Daniele Mensi, MEF Blockchain Advisor, EU president – Blockcerts;
  • Andrew Bud, MEF Chairman, CEO – iProov.

Here are the big talking points:

An acceleration to logical conclusions

Technology has enabled millions of business to remain operational through imposed lockdowns in response to coronavirus. The mobile industry is now being requested to roll out apps that helps counter the pandemic through modelling and the analysis of human movement. Immediately.

”What coronavirus has done is taking a trend which was happening, towards online and mobile access, and has driven it hard towards its logical conclusion”, Andrew Bud pointed out. “Now everybody has to do everything online”.  This crisis “is going to accelerate a lot of trends. In areas like identity, health data, financial data, authentication, security, video conferencing. We will see many many years progress in a short time”.

What coronavirus has done is taking a trend which was happening, towards online and mobile access, and has driven it hard towards its logical conclusion – it is going to accelerate a lot of trends. In areas like identity, health data, financial data, authentication, security, video conferencing. We will see many many years progress in a short time” 

For Daniele Mensi, the main challenge is speed and immediacy: “What we are exposed at is nothing different from what we used to know in the past. But the virus introduced the concept of the speed at which we are doing things”. The industry is requested to provide new services and deliver solutions quick.

“We have been focusing in delivering the what and the how: in how much time wasn’t such an important variable”, Mensi reminded. That has changed abruptly,  “and will change fundamentally how organisations like telco behave”.

Julian Ranger’s company works in the area which can be summarised as “my data”: all the data that an individual has about himself: health, finance, social. “Data being aggregated at the individual and being allowed to be shared“, he explained. He saw a change in the market last year: “Big companies, even governments  started to give back health data, but it has been slow, like if it was going to happen in two, three or four years time“.

In the last 4 weeks, the process accelerated hugely: “It has gone crazy: we have now three governments that want to give this capability to every citizen, in two weeks”, Ranger said. “It’s happening right now in some nations and it will happen around the world in the next year”.

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Blessing or curse? The privacy implications

The mobile industry response could be crucial in limiting a rise of COVID-19 cases when governments will eventually relax current controls. “There is something very controversial that’s about to happen: as the lockdown opens up, a key personal characteristic will become weather you are immune”, Andrew Bud pointed out.

The privilege just to move around, interact, or use the public transport will depend on weather you are COVID-immune or not. “That will become a very sensitive piece of private identity which will have to be shared in a number of contexts”. And in a controlled way. “ I think that the use of a mobile phone as a tool for authenticating and authorising the transmission of that information will be absolutely fundamental”, Bud said.

“Every time I am sharing data – about COVID status, or track-trace or when doing self assessments – the question has to be: am I actively volunteering my data to be sent?”, Julian Ranger reminded. “That’s what we need to put in place, rather than the government trying to grab in hiding“.

A number of countries are introducing apps in which citizens have to respond to the government text messages by authenticating themselves in real time. “Is that consenting or not, are you a a free citizen to answer your government?“, Andrew Bud argued. His company provides authentication for a number of governments, he disclosed without further elaborating.

Every time I am sharing data – about COVID status, or track-trace or when doing self assessments – the question has to be: am I actively volunteering my data to be sent?That’s what we need to put in place, rather than the government trying to grab in hiding”

“I believe we should have in place directions where people are in control of their digital identity or their identity into the mobile device”, Daniele Mensi said.  “So, they can keep control for online and offline transactions themselves, similarly to what happens in Blockchain with private and public keys” .

The automated contact tracing system recently created by Apple and Google is based on Bluetooth codes exchange. No identify capability at all. ”If they do what they say they will, purging the data after 40 days and not looking to reuse it, then it’s a good answer”, according to Julian Ranger. “But track and tracing is just one of the many things that need to be done“.

Global and local challenges

Governments have reacted to the pandemic by closing the borders and building figurative barriers. The virus doesn’t recognise borders, though. A global action to counter the COVID-19 would be more effective. Could the mobile applications deployed in this battle go global?

“Countries are really cautious about sensitive data like medical data to cross the border“, Andrew Bud noticed. “We’ll see some interesting tensions that Covid will create, particularly as international travel begins again, between the data sovereignty constraints that people naturally feel and the need to build transnational information in order to keep control of the virus”.

“The person that moves from a country to another is individual. And countries are giving the data back to the individual. And that’s how you move the data around”, Ranger said. “That will be accelerating. And we will be sharing anonymous statistics at a higher level”.

“At Blockcerts we follow this principle: there is a global problem, but the delivery, the execution is done at local level, by the local community”, Mansi said. “We favour a decentralised, distributed approach”. A new delivery model.

Safeguarding the vulnerable

Services for local communities and vulnerable residents are a priority, now as never before. “We are delivering tech for free to volunteers for that”, Bud disclosed. ”There are huge safeguard issues, strong authentication is a strong necessity”. In Bud’s opinion, the. pandemic is going to change the adoption of advanced technology by older people:  “COVID confines that vulnerable group to their phones and makes it utterly dependant upon an online world […]. The technology has to be super simple and easy to use. That is a change that would have taken years and it’s now happening in months”.

In safeguarding the vulnerable, public money injections are also crucial. “There will be a functional help in using mobile services to get access to stimulus packages”, Mensi foresees. “In the US, they need to distribute in a very short amount of time about $1200 per person to the whole population: if you want to do to something similar, you need to think about a process that today doesn’t exist. You can’t use the banking system: some people wouldn’t have access, and it’s too slow. To me the mobile technology defines the infrastructure, the connectivity between the people and the government in this case”.

Sustaining financially the people impacted by the pandemic is the first thing to do, according to Mensi: “We don’t have much time. Just a month, or so. Then, in many countries companies will have no more cash. So, people won’t have cash. It’s a catch-22 situation: to me finance will drive the adoption of all the other policies, including the ones on identity”.

Riccardo Amati

Broadcast Journalist

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