Top digital officials in Europe have criticized US tech giants for “imposing” standards on Covid-19 tracing apps and called for Europe to wean itself off its reliance on foreign technology companies.

In a joint op-ed published on Monday, officials in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal said it had been a challenge to provide technical solutions to Covid-19 tracing efforts that “are effective across borders” in Europe while also maintaining specific national requirements. Europe, it said, is committed to developing “voluntary, open-source, privacy-preserving, temporary applications.”

Attempts to “impose” different technological standards by foreign companies would be a “missed opportunity” for collaboration between European governments and private sectors, they wrote.

The officials did not specifically name the “global digital players” to which they were referring, but both Google and Apple have been at the forefront of developing the Covid-19 tracing technology adopted by many European countries. The apps aim to alert users if they have been in contact with a person who has tested positive for Covid-19.

The Covid-19 experience has shown the importance of strengthening the bloc’s “digital sovereignty,” which the officials said would be the “basis for achieving sustainable competitiveness” at the European level and “the main catalyst for economic growth.”

After initial attempts to go with homegrown approaches to tracing apps, European countries – including Germany, which ditched its own national proposals – have gradually given in and gone with systems developed by Google and Apple, despite the privacy concerns about relying on US tech companies.

Yet, the two companies have said data will be processed on user devices to preserve privacy, rather than by central servers run by national authorities – a method that some campaigners say could be a step toward state surveillance. 

France, on the other hand, decided to forge ahead with its own centralized model, bypassing Google and Apple, even though there are concerns about interoperability on smartphones running iOS and Android operating systems. It is expected to launch its app on June 2.

Earlier this month, a German government official told Politico that Europe needs to “have a discussion on how Silicon Valley is increasingly taking over the job of a nation state,” but that the conversation does not need to happen “amid a pandemic.”

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