France Launches Contact-Tracing App Despite Privacy Concerns

    04 June 2020

    France is launching an official software application, or app, aimed at containing new outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. The app's main purpose is the method of documenting infected people and the people they come into contact with, also known as contact tracing.

    As lockdown restrictions slowly ease, France is becoming the first major European country to deploy the smartphone technology while experts debate privacy concerns.

    The French were able to download the StopCovid app on their Google Android devices and Apple iPhones starting on June 2. That is the same day they were once again permitted to go to restaurants, parks, beaches, museums and monuments.

    French Digital Affairs junior minister Cedric O demonstrates how to use the French app StopCovid in Paris, May 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Masha Macpherson)
    French Digital Affairs junior minister Cedric O demonstrates how to use the French app StopCovid in Paris, May 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Masha Macpherson)

    Neighbors including Britain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland are developing their own apps. But they are using different technical protocols, raising questions about how well these programs will work across Europe's borders.

    Officials hope the app can deal with virus outbreaks as they reopen the economy in France. The country has been living under some of Europe's tightest restrictions since it became one of the countries that the coronavirus crisis has hit hardest. It has experienced nearly 29,000 deaths.

    Some people in Paris were happy to start using the technology to help bring life back to normal.

    Restaurant employee 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," the 24-year-old said. "It's easy and it can help protecting others."

    The different European apps use low-energy signals shared by devices with Bluetooth technology to anonymously record whether there are people nearby. Under the French system, data is added to government-run centralized computer systems. Users who test positive will be able to tell others they have been in close with contact with for at least 15 minutes so those people can separate themselves and seek treatment.

    Like Britain, France rejected new mobile software for tracing apps jointly developed by United States technology companies Google and Apple. Instead the countries chose to build their own. The Google-Apple system uses a "decentralized" system supported by privacy experts because it keeps data on phones. But British and French officials say it does not give them enough information to deal with outbreaks.

    Civil liberties groups worry that tracing apps will lead to government surveillance. But the French government says the app does not record users' location and destroys data after 14 days.

    Some lawmakers have raised doubts over the app's effectiveness if few people use it due to privacy concerns and possible technical issues. Cedric O, France's junior minister for the digital economy, said the app identifies about 80 percent of surrounding phones using Bluetooth.

    Sami Mounir of Paris said he will not use it because of the privacy concerns.

    "We don't know what they could do with the data or whether it could be hacked," the 31-year-old said.

    Officials and experts say tracing apps are not a complete solution to the virus but can aid in-person contact tracing efforts.

    Professor Arnaud Fontanet is a disease expert at the Paris Pasteur Institute and a member of the scientific committee advising French President Emmanuel Macron. He said the app is "a tool, not a revolutionary one, but a useful one."

    Other countries around Europe have been working quickly to build their apps, often using the Google-Apple system. This dependence on Apple and Google for a more private system goes against some European Union members' earlier positions. In recent years, they had criticized the companies for not protecting data privacy enough.

    Officials say at least 60 percent of Italy's 60 person million population needs to use Italy's Immuni app, based on the Google-Apple system, for it to be effective.

    Switzerland started a test of its SwissCovid app late last month. Germany paid software company SAP and wireless carrier Deutsche Telekom to build its decentralized "Corona-Warn-App. " Developers say the app's "data will be stored locally on each device preventing access and control over data by ... anyone else."

    Britain launched a huge countrywide "track and trace" program in in May, including 25,000 human contact tracers. But its tracing app is not ready and it is unclear when it will launch.

    I'm Pete Musto.

    Sylvie Corbet and Kelvin Chan reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    outbreak(s) – n. a sudden start or increase of fighting or disease

    beach (es) - n. seaside; coastline

    protocol(s) – n. a system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations

    benefit(s) – n. a good or helpful result or effect

    maskn. a covering for your face or for part of your face

    anonymouslyadv. done in a way that does not name or identify people

    positiveadj. showing the presence of a particular germ, condition, or substance

    surveillancen. the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime

    hack(ed) – v. to secretly get access to the files on a computer or network in order to get information or cause damage

    accessn. a way of being able to use or get something

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