Coronavirus: Apple and France in stand-off over contact-tracing app

Contact the tracking app

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France is hoping to launch its contact tracking app in mid-May

France is pushing Apple to let its next coronavirus contract tracking app work in the background on the iPhone without building the privacy measures required by the American company.

The country’s digital minister confirmed the request in an interview with Bloomberg.

The French system would allow for more information on participating smartphone owners to be collected than is permitted by Apple and its partner Google.

Privacy experts consider it a test case.

“Apple has no reason to consent to this request and would open the door to many other requests from other countries and entities,” prof. Olivier Blazy of the University of Limoges.

“As a Frenchman, I think it would be helpful to avoid depending on the Google-Apple solution, but I think it is strange that the government’s strategy is based on trying to get Apple to do something that is against its interest, without incentives to do so. “

Apple and Google announced on April 10 to work together to provide a software building block, known as an API (Application Programming Interface), which will allow Covid-19 authorized contact tracking apps to work more efficiently.

Contact tracking apps work by registering each time two or more users are close to each other for a substantial period of time.

If a device owner is subsequently diagnosed as likely to have the virus, an alert can be sent to those who may have infected, who may be asked to self-isolate.

Using a similar app together with other measures, it would theoretically be possible to put an end to larger blockages and still suppress the disease, as long as enough people take part.

The Apple and Google method is based on using Bluetooth signals to detect matches.

But they deliberately designed it so that neither they nor the app creators could see who was notified.

The companies said that this serves to ensure “strong user privacy protections”, which in turn should encourage adoption.

In contrast, Inria – the French institute that develops its StopCovid app – has developed its own system, called Robert (robust proximity tracking protocol that preserves privacy).

it published details about Sunday on the Github code sharing site.

And although the French government has promised that the adoption of the app will be voluntary and will concern anonymous data, the document reveals that there would be ways to “re-identify users or infer their contact charts” if desired.

“It’s an improper term to call it a protocol to preserve privacy,” said University of Oxford computer science professor Prof Max van Kleek, who prefers Apple-Google design.

“It maintains privacy between users but not between the user and the government.

“And this leads to the risk that the government will later re-propose the system to make sure people obey a quarantine or other types of things that the state may want to know.”

The problem for Inria – and other countries that develop their own contact tracking apps – is that Apple will not currently allow Bluetooth-based tracking and tracking in the background.

So in order to work, apps should stay active and on the screen, limiting what owners could do with their phones and compromising battery life.

The developers of the Singapore TraceTogether app have attempted to get around this by offering an energy saving mode that obscures the display.

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Users complained about TraceTogether’s need to run prominently in the App Store reviews

But users still complained that they weren’t able to make calls or use other apps at the same time and that they accidentally blocked the app in the background when their laptop was in their pocket.

And this has discouraged people from using it.

“We are asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign solution for European health that will be linked to our health system,” France’s digital minister Cedric O told Bloomberg.

An Apple spokesman reported to the BBC News to his previous privacy comments.

NHSX – which is testing an app of its own for the UK – faces a similar dilemma and remains in discussion with Apple and Google on the subject.

“Apple and Google have an acquired interest in protecting the privacy of their end users,” said Prof. Van Kleek.

“This is not only from governments but also from potentially harmful opponents.

“If you collect sensitive data, it becomes more likely that at some point this data will leak, so from a cybersecurity perspective there are many good reasons not to do it.”

French lawmakers will vote on whether to proceed with the app, after the country’s government has withdrawn from an original plan to allow parliamentarians to discuss only but not to decide on the measure.

Assuming they support the initiative, O said he hoped to launch the tool on May 11th.

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