The French government has been forced to delay the debate and vote in the National Assembly regarding its controversial coronavirus contact tracing app, StopCovid, following privacy concerns.
However, the government confirmed that those working on the app will be ready on 11 May, the day France starts to gradually ease lockdown measures. EURACTIV France and AFP report.
Questions relating to civil liberties “seem to be well-founded. They must be asked. They must be debated”, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the National Assembly, as he faced concerned MPs, including from the majority.
However, the prime minister has not yet given up on the project, contrary to rumours, which spread in the Assembly and the press.
“When the application under development is up and running and before its implementation, we will hold a specific debate, followed by a specific vote”, the PM assured.
The aim of the mobile tracing app is to enable each user who tests positive for the coronavirus to warn all other app users he or she has come in contact with in the past two weeks so that other users can take precautions.
“It is difficult to warn the person who shared your metro train at 7:46 a.m. on line 12”, the Prime Minister stressed before the Assembly. “You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, and the RATP [i.e. Autonomous Parisian Transport Administration] knows none of you,” the PM added.
Thanks to Bluetooth technology used to make electronic devices interact with each other over short distances, however, smartphones can keep the memory of all other smartphones they’ve crossed paths with.
But this simple idea raises serious privacy issues when implemented in practice. Advocacy organisations have questioned the ability of anyone to give “free and informed” consent to the implications of such tracking.
“StopCovid promises to be a real electronic bracelet placed ‘voluntarily’ on the wrist of the French,” the National Union of Journalists (SNJ), the National Union of CGT Journalists (SNJ-CGT), the League of Human Rights (LDH) and the Union Syndicale Solidaires (a French group of trade unions), wrote in a joint press release.
“A technical challenge”
Following the prime minister’s statement, Digital Minister Cédric O assured the National Assembly that the public and private partners brought together to design the phone app remained mobilised “to be ready on 11 May”.
“It is a technical challenge, and it is a challenge that we share with our European partners. Our priority is to take all safeguards, especially in terms of security,” the minister told AFP, adding that he was regularly taking stock of the situation with several European ministers concerned, including his Italian and Spanish colleagues.
“We talk to each other all the time. There is a fairly strong consensus” on the fact that an “interoperable” solution must be found between the different countries, Cédric O said.
European member states also want to be able to “make their own technical choices”, whatever Google and Apple choose to do, he added.
The two American giants, which control the world’s two major app stores (App Store and Google Play Store), want to quickly offer a common base for a COVID-19 contact tracing app, which interested states could then customise.
Paul Hermelin, president of French IT giant Capgemini, suggested on Tuesday (28 April) that StopCovid could eventually do without Apple, despite the brand accounting for about 15% of smartphones currently in use in France.