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ETSI Launches Industry Specification Group: Europe for Privacy-Preserving Pandemic Protection

Nothing can describe the situation the world is living today more accurately than the current aspect of the Dolores Park in the town of San Francisco (USA). These days the green grass shows an abnormal aspect. A series of white circles span all the ground around. It is not the effect of an extra-terrestrial visit, it is just the consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic: the circles mark the safety areas where families can enjoy the park, socially-distanced, under the Sun.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has hit us all fiercely this year. March was especially devastating for Europe. On the 23rd, that month, European Commissioner Mr. Thierry Breton held a videoconference with a group of chief executives from the most relevant European telecom carriers. The goal: to explore how to jointly fight against the Coronavirus outbreak. During the conversation, a few key messages arose: a) the need to provide networks resilience; b) the need to collect, share and analyze anonymized metadata for modeling and predicting the propagation of the virus; c) the need to comply with GDPR and e-Privacy legislation; and d) the importance of protecting the networks against cyberattacks. Barely six weeks after that meeting, ETSI approved the creation of a brand-new industry specification group (ISG), labeled as “Europe for Privacy-Preserving Pandemic Protection” (E4P). The coincidences between the topics discussed during the meeting of March 23rd and the charter of E4P were going to be more than evident.

E4P was live for the first time during its kick-off meeting, held on May 26th, 2020. The group was born with a main goal: to define a pan-European standardization framework for enabling the development of scalable, interoperable, secure and privacy preserving contact tracing solutions. A goal that is not but the forefront of a ultimate objective: to save lives; both, by contributing to break COVID-19 transmission chains (informing people when they have been in close contact with other individuals who have tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2) and by helping to model the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic (analyzing anonymized and aggregated data).

A mission not exempt of challenges like the fact to bring contact tracing at large scale (to thousands, even millions of citizens), the need to do it securely (i.e., preventing cyber incidents) and the obligation to do it by respecting every citizen’s privacy. But, at the same time, a mission plenty of opportunities like today’s ubiquity of technology (with 70% of European citizens owning a smartphone), the functionalities provided by certain technologies (e.g., Bluetooth) or the possibility to make manual, interview-based tracing easier, quicker and more efficient. ETSI’s previous experience in cybersecurity, e-Health and emergency communications, for sure, will be critical, too, for the success of the initiative.

Currently, the group has already held its second bi-weekly meeting and is advancing on its challenging schedule. The first results of the group, a technical report on existing contact tracing methods and a technical specification providing details on the minimum requirements of those solutions, are expected to be released this summer. Further deliverables will be released later this year.

Additional reading: ETSI’s New Group on COVID-19 Tracing Apps Interoperability Moving Fast: Officials Elected and Work Programme Set Up

By Miguel Garcia-Menendez, Vice-Chairman of the E4P Group & CPO at Alastria

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