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In Germany, High Hopes For New COVID-19 Contact Tracing App That Protects Privacy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she welcomes the development of a European COVID-19 tracing app that protects data and doesn't store the location of its users.

The app, developed by a European initiative, uses Bluetooth to log a user's proximity to other cellphones. Users then receive a message if they've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The initiative, known as the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), is run by a European coalition of tech experts and scientists drawn from at least eight countries and led by Germany's Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecommunications.

Doctors would be able to use the system by getting permission from those who test positive and putting their information into a central server.

The ability to track down those at risk of infection more accurately could make it possible to ease countrywide lockdowns that have brought economic activity to a near halt, the app's creators say.

Epidemiologists say this type of tracing also promises to contain flare-ups of the virus.

The platform would make anonymous use of Bluetooth technology, without storing data from location tracking — thereby bringing it within the strict requirements of the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation.

There are, as of Thursday, more than 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in Germany, with more than 960 deaths.

Some Asian countries have used smartphones to track the spread of the coronavirus and enforce quarantine orders, although the Asian countries' methods would violate stringent European data protection rules.

The German government is aiming to launch the app by mid-April.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.