French Virus Tracing App Goes Live Amid Privacy Debates

PARIS—France is rolling out an official COVID-19 contact-tracing app aimed at containing fresh outbreaks as lockdown restrictions gradually ease, becoming the first major European country to deploy smartphone technology amid simmering debates over data privacy.

The StopCovid app launched on June 2 just as the French government started allowing people to once again go to restaurants and cafes, parks and beaches and museums, and monuments. It was available on Apples App store and the Google Play store.

Neighbors including the UK, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland are each developing apps, although theyre using different technical protocols, raising questions about compatibility across Europes borders.

Authorities hope the app can help manage virus flare-ups as they reopen the economy in France, which has been living under some of Europes tightest restrictions since it became one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, with nearly 29,000 deaths.

Some Parisians were keen to adopt the technology to help bring life back to normal.

Cafe waiter Paul Hubert said he was ready to download the app because he sees “more benefits than risks.”

“To me, it sounds like wearing a mask in a shop,” said Hubert, 24. “Its easy and it can help to protect others.”

The various European apps use low-energy Bluetooth signals to anonymously log the nearby presence of other users. Under the French system, data is uploaded to government-run centralized servers. Users who test positive will be able to notify others who have been in close contact for at least 15 minutes so they can self-isolate and seek treatment.

France, like Britain, rejected a new mobile software interface for tracing apps jointly developed by U.S. tech giants Google and Apple, instead choosing to build its own. The Google-Apple system uses a “decentralized” system backed by privacy experts because it keeps data on phones, but British and French officials say it doesnt give them enough information to manage outbreaks.

Civil liberties groups worry that tracing apps are a gateway to more government surveillance but Cedric O, Frances junior minister for the digital economy, dismissed those concerns.

“The problem with a centralized protocol is that you have to be confident and to trust your state but were in a democratic state, we have checks and balances,” O told the AP.

The government says the app doesnt track location and deletes user data after 14 days.

Some French lawmakers have raised doubts over the apps effectiveness if few people install it and because of potential technical issues. O said the app detects about 80 percent of surrounding phones via Bluetooth.

Parisian Sami Mounir said he wont download it because of the privacy concerns.

“We dont know what they could do with the data or whether it could be hacked,” Mounir, 31, said. “Plus, its health data, its too sensitive.”

Officials and experts say tracing apps arent a magic bullet against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus and which causes the disease COVID-19, but can aid time-consuming manual contact tracing efforts.

The app is “a tool, not a revolutionary one, but a useful tool,” said professor Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist at the Paris Pasteur Institute and a member of the scientific committee advising French President Emmanuel Macron.

France and other countries have set up teams to interview people testing positive about their contacts. But the tracers will likely miss strangers, so the app may prove useful especially “in circumstances where youre going to stand next to someone who is infected, without knowing, for quite a long period of time,” like in public transports and restaurants, Fontanet said.

Other countries around Europe have been scrambling to build apps, often using the Google-Apple system. The reliance on the tech giants for a more private system is an ironic turn of events after the European Union called them out repeatedly in recent years for not protecting data privacy sufficiently.

In the U.S., only a few states were early to launch tracing apps, which have encountered technical problems on Apple and Android phones and havent been widely downloaded. Other states are building apps using the Google-Apple technology.

Italys Immuni app, based on the Google-Apple system, was available to download starting June 1, and will undergo testing next week before being rolled out nationwide. AuthoritRead More – Source