Digital technologies – innovative solutions during the coronavirus crisis

For Europeans to seize the opportunities offered by digital technologies, the European Commission adopted its Digital Strategy on 19 February 2020. In the face of the coronavirus crisis, this strategy gains renewed importance as the Commission deploys digital tools to monitor the spread of the virus, research and develop vaccines and treatments and ensure that Europeans can stay connected and safe online.

While movement restrictions apply and as social and economic activities have temporarily been moved to the digital realm, citizens and businesses rely on the internet for access to information. Thanks to broadband networks and digital infrastructure, we can keep on learning, socialising and working. Trust services, such as eSignatures, eSeals and electronic authentication services for businesses, eGovernment and eHealth ensure continuity and the availability of public services while trusted security systems protect our identities online and make sure that our activities remain private.

Data, supercomputers and artificial intelligence

Using mobile data and apps

Data plays a key role in tackling the coronavirus pandemic – by applying digital technologies, we can better understand the spread of the virus and respond. European data spaces, like the common health data space, can facilitate urgently needed data-driven solutions across borders.

On 8 April, the Commission adopted a recommendation to support the gradual lifting of coronavirus containment measures through mobile data and apps. The Recommendation provides for steps and measures for a common European approach of the use of mobile applications and mobile data in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The recommendation sets out key principles for the use of mobile applications used for social distancing measures, warning, preventing and contact tracing. Any use of apps and data should respect data security and EU fundamental rights such as privacy and data protection.

Contact tracing apps

Contact tracing and warning apps are applications that are voluntarily installed, used to warn users if they have been in proximity for a certain duration to a person who reported to have been tested positive for coronavirus. In case of an alert, the app may provide relevant information from health authorities, such as advice to get tested or to self-isolate, and who to contact.

As Member States begin to lift travel restrictions across borders, on 16 June EU Member States, with the support of the Commission, have agreed on a set of technical specifications to ensure a safe exchange of information between contact tracing apps. This concerns the vast majority of tracing apps that are based on a decentralised architecture and that were already – or are about to be – launched in the EU. Once the technical solution is deployed, such national apps will work seamlessly when users travel to another EU country, which also follows the decentralised approach.

The proximity information shared between apps will be exchanged in an encrypted way that prevents the identification of any individual, in line with the strict EU guidelines on data protection for apps; no geo-location data will be used. The technical specifications agreed on 16 June build on the Interoperability guidelines agreed in May, setting the general principles. The Commission continues to support the work of Member States on extending this solution also to tracing apps that relying on a centralised server.

Based on the recommendation, Member States, supported by the Commission, have developed an EU toolbox for the use of mobile applications. The toolbox sets out the essential requirements for these apps and reflects the best practices in the use of mobile contact tracing and warning apps to tackle the crisis.

EU Toolbox for the use of mobile applications for contact tracing and warning

Interoperability guidelines for contact tracing apps

Health data are considered sensitive data under the GDPR (Article 9) and their processing can therefore only take place under strict requirements. The GDPR however provides that one of the legal grounds for processing personal data is public interest in the area of public health. Data processing may be necessary for humanitarian purposes, including for the monitoring of epidemics. In this case, Union law or Member State law shall provide suitable and specific measures to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the individual.

Aggregated statistical data which do not enable identification of the concerned natural persons (for instance aggregated location data) are not considered personal data and therefore the GDPR does not apply.

The European Data Protection Board, composed of the EU data protection authorities, issued a statement on 20 March on the processing of personal data in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.

The EU has some of the strongest data protection and privacy rules in the world. The coronavirus does not change that. Debunked coronavirus myths.

On 16 April, the European Commission put forward guidelines for the development of contact tracing and warning apps. Such apps should only be implemented in close coordination with public health authorities, only installed voluntarily, users should remain in control of their personal data and the apps must fully comply with EU data protection rules, notably the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the ePrivacy Directive.

While such apps are likely to be based on Bluetooth proximity technology, do not enable the tracking of people’s locations but they can alert people to get tested or to self-isolate after having been in proximity with an infected person for a certain duration, thereby interrupting virus transmission chains. Data must be securely stored and should not be kept for longer than necessary.

European supercomputers fighting the coronavirus

Three powerful European supercomputing centres – located in Bologna, Barcelona and Jülich – are currently being used to research and develop vaccines, treatments and diagnoses for the coronavirus. By comparing digital models of the coronavirus’ protein and matching them against a database of thousands of existing drugs, the aim is to discover which combinations of active molecules react to the virus. The supercomputers complement the classic trial and error clinical approach and possible experimentation. A pharmaceutical company and several large biological and biochemical institutes participate by providing access to their databases of drugs.

The European Commission supports the research and innovation to develop vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Exscalate4CoV project was launched on 31 January 2020 and received €3 million in EU funding.

On June 19, Exscalate4CoV announced that an already-registered generic drug used to treat osteoporosis, Raloxifene, could be an effective treatment for coronavirus patients with mildly symptomatic infection. The consortium is conducting research using an EU-backed supercomputing platform to check the potential impact of known molecules against the structure of the coronavirus. As a next step, the consortium will be discussing with the European Medicines Agency how to advance to clinical trials to evaluate the new potential use for Raloxifene. If successful, the drug could be quickly made available in high volumes and at low cost.

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence and supercomputers are at the forefront of the coronavirus response. Their computational capabilities accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments.

The analytical power of artificial intelligence and high-performance computing are major assets when it comes to detecting patterns in the spread of the coronavirus. With the help of artificial intelligence and high-performance computing, the public health sectors can monitor the spread of the virus and quickly devise effective response strategies as a result.

As regards the healthcare industry, artificial intelligence also plays a part in powering the robots used when coming into contact with patients, as human interaction must be kept to a minimum.

Find more information on the role of data, artificial intelligence and supercomputers in the coronavirus response.

Coronavirus response – data from space

Data from the EU Space Programme offers a comprehensive, efficient and cost-effective way to quantify the industrial and environmental impacts of coronavirus. Since the beginning of the crisis, EU satellites have been monitoring traffic congestions at border crossings between Member States and has been mapping medical facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure. Data that is collected from space, in combination with artificial intelligence provides public authorities at the EU and national levels with models to better understand and tackle the emergency more efficiently.

The EU Space Programme offers solutions for multiple issues: safeguarding public health with Galileo - the most accurate positioning system in the world, monitoring how we deliver on the Green Deal with Copernicus - the best Earth Observation system of its class, and ensuring a secure communication channel for the Member States.

The European Commission and the European Space Agency launch a new platform to help green and sustainable recovery

The Copernicus programme has been fully mobilised from day one of this crisis, to help citizens and public authorities in the Member States during these difficult times. On 5 June, the European Commission launched the ‘Rapid Action on Coronavirus and Earth observation’ in collaboration with the European Space Agency. The Rapid Action tool relies on Earth observation satellite data to measure the impact of the coronavirus lockdown and monitor post-lockdown recovery at local, regional and global levels. The data is then analyzed using new digital tools, such as artificial intelligence. The Rapid Action tool notably monitors key environmental parameters – air and water quality changes, and economic and human activities, such as industry, shipping, construction, traffic and agricultural productivity. These are important indicators of the progress towards a green and sustainable recovery.

Networks and connectivity

As EU Member States have introduced social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for Internet capacity has increased drastically - be it for teleworking, e-learning or entertainment purposes – thereby straining networks.

To prevent network congestion and to allow everyone the enjoyment of digital entertainment, the European Commission calls upon and met with the CEOs of streaming platforms, telecom operators and users to take action. Streaming platforms are encouraged to offer standards rather than high definition content, telecom operators should take mitigating measures to allow for continued traffic, and users should apply settings that reduce data consumption, including the use of Wi-Fi.

The EU operators indicate that there is an increased demand of connectivity. Although no network congestions has occurred thus far, the Commission and the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) have set up a special reporting mechanism to monitor the internet traffic situation in each Member State to be able to respond to capacity issues.

Find more information on the role of telecommunications, networks and connectivity in the coronavirus response.

Online platforms fighting disinformation

Misinformation and disinformation is spreading rapidly online, particularly on social media. At times, this goes beyond simple mistruths. Fake or alleged ‘remedies’ can lead to serious harm or health risks.

The European Commission has been in dialogue with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft, the online platforms signatories of the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, who agreed to actively promote authoritative sources, demote fact-checked false or misleading content, and launch new tools that lead users directly to authoritative sources or that provide accurate multilingual information on the crisis.

The platforms have been also using all the tools at their disposal to remove disinformation relating to the coronavirus. They take down illegal content or content that could cause physical harm (for example, fake and harmful virus remedies) or affect public order (for example disinformation around the 5G deployment allegedly being the cause of the coronavirus).

Find more information on the role of online platforms and disinformation in the coronavirus response.

The European Commission regularly debunks misleading stories.

Fighting disinformation

Staying safe online

The coronavirus pandemic has led a sudden and large shift towards online services. People are spending more time online and depending more on digital communication. Such heightened online activity can attract malign actors and increase the potential of cyber-attacks.

This also concerns children, who now spend more time online, possibly unsupervised, than before. While this allows them to continue their education and stay in touch with their peers, there are signs of increased risk. Therefore, EUROPOL has collaborated with international partners to develop Online Safety Advice for Parents and Carers to help keep children safe online during the coronavirus pandemic.

Beware of online scams

Beware of online scams related to products that allegedly can cure or prevent coronavirus infections. Currently, no vaccination or remedies for the coronavirus are available and you should think twice before buying medicine or other remedies, including test kits, online. Once available, you will be able to receive both tests and vaccines from your licensed medical practitioner. Avoid financing crime by purchasing worthless substances, which might harm your health. To tackle criminal activities effectively, it is important that victims report crimes to national police authorities, and you should use the reporting tools provided by the platform operator to signal inappropriate content.You can find advice that can help you detect and avoid potential scams.

The European Commission is working closely with the national authorities, other EU institutions, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity, EUROPOL (the European Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation) the Computer Emergency Response Team for the EU Institutions, and other bodies and agencies to monitor for any signs of threats to ensure a safe online environment throughout this vulnerable time. They follow the situation, while providing threat reports and guidance as well as regular reports on cybersecurity.

EUROPOL has supported a successful investigation that resulted in the arrest of criminals purporting to sell masks to EU Member States’ governments and helped foil another attempt to swindle authorities out of millions of Euros for medical supplies. The European Commission has been working with Europol and the providers of website domain names to prevent the granting of domain names to criminals and foster swift cooperation between providers and authorities to identify and disable scam websites. The providers have already launched guidance.

A screening sweep of online platforms and advertisements

To protect consumers online, the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network of national authorities are coordinating a screening of online platforms, e-shops and advertisements to ensure that consumers in the EU are not being subjected to content in breach of EU consumer rules. This sweep consisted of two parts: a high-level screening of online platforms, and an in-depth analysis of specific advertisements and websites linked to products in high demand because of the coronavirus.

The Commission exchanges information with the major online platforms (Allegro, Amazon, AliExpress, Microsoft/Bing, CDiscount, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Rakuten, Wish and Yahoo/Verizon media). All these platforms have replied with a strong commitment to the protection of consumers, and  have confirmed their continued efforts to proactively take down misleading ads, including for ‘miracle' food supplements illegally advertised with claims related to coronavirus.

The Consumer Protection Authorities of 27 countries participated in the high-level screening of platforms and submitted 126 replies concerning both the companies with which the Commission has been in regular contact and other national actors. Priority was given to screening offers linked to protective masks and caps, sanitising gels, testing kits as well as food, food supplements and non-food products with alleged healing effects related to the coronavirus.

This joint action has already showed good results. In March, Aliexpress removed over 250,000 suspicious listings, and eBay blocked or removed more than 15 million listings violating their coronavirus policies. Millions of misleading advertisements or product listings were blocked or removed in May, on Google (over 80 million coronavirus-related ads), eBay (over 17 million listings from its global marketplace), and Amazon (a 77% decrease in the weekly number of new product listings with coronavirus-related claims compared to March 2020).

As part of the more in-depth screening of websites, 206 out of 268 screened websites were flagged for further investigation for potential breeches of EU consumer law. 88 websites contained products with claims of alleged healing or preventive effects against the coronavirus, 30 websites contained inaccurate claims on the scarcity of products, and 24 websites were suspected of unfair practices to obtain excessive prices.

The Commission will continue cooperation and information exchanges with advertising self-regulatory bodies on the development of automatic tools to find misleading advertisements.

More information on how the Commission is protecting consumers can be found here.

Factsheet on the Regulation on consumer protection

 

Upskilling for life after the pandemic: new digital competence guidelines

Social distancing has transformed the way we connect, research and innovate at work. To help employers, recruiters and educators ensure that Europeans are equipped with digital skills in the post-coronavirus context, on 13 July the Commission launched new digital competence guidelines that include practical steps, key actions, tips and online resources for digital users. These will help citizens make best use of their digital competences from the perspective of the ‘employability path’- from education to sustainable employment, and entrepreneurship.

The EU Science Hub
 

Online learning

The outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe has caused significant disruption to the provision of education, training and mobility opportunities for learners, teachers and educators across the EU. To help ensure continuity in education and training activities, there is a wide range of online learning materials made available online:

Find more information on the role of skills, collaborative working and creativity in the coronavirus response.