The French government has asked Apple to relax a Bluetooth privacy standard that impedes the development of a mobile application designed to track the spread of COVID-19.
Apple’s operating system prevents contact-tracing apps using its Bluetooth technology from running constantly in the background if that data is going to be moved off of the device, a limit designed to protect users’ privacy. That limitation is standing in the way of the type of app that France wants to build, Digital Minister Cedric O said.
The government aims to deploy its app by May 11, which is when France wants to begin to lift restrictions on movement that were imposed in mid-March. Contact-tracing apps are a tool health services can use to more accurately determine who infected people have come into contact with and governments can deploy to help make decisions about how quickly to reopen schools and businesses.
“We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system,” O said in an interview with Bloomberg. Ministers have discussed their concerns with Apple, but aren’t making progress, he said.
An Apple spokesman referred to the company’s previous joint statement about its partnership with Google, which said the technology would enable Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps and declined to comment further.
Apple and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are developing their own technology to help build contact-tracing apps. Their platform should become available to governments and public health authorities everywhere next month, according to an official in the French minister’s office. Still, the French are banking on a home-grown solution.
France’s conflict with Apple is part of a broader debate about how much data such apps should collect and who should have access to it.
The Google-Apple system relies on smartphones’ Bluetooth connections and will allow users to keep their data on their handsets. However, France and the European Union want to feed the data to a central server, managed by state health services, which would alert users if they come into contact with a person infected by Covid-19.
Any system that sends data to a centralized location is inherently less secure and is vulnerable to “mission creep,” enabling a form of surveillance on users, according to a letter on Monday from 300 academics in more than two dozen countries, which endorsed Google and Apple’s approach.
Such a program would “catastrophically hamper trust in and acceptance of such an application by society at large,” the letter said. “It is vital that, in coming out of the current crisis, we do not create a tool that enables large scale data collection on the population, either now or at a later time.”
The European Union said last week it would scrutinize the Silicon Valley giants’ technology to ensure it meets the bloc’s new standards governing the deployment of Covid-19 apps. Apple and Google have defended their system’s privacy, saying users’ names and locations won’t be shared or stored.
Mobile apps should be voluntary, approved by national health authorities, preserve users’ privacy and dismantled as soon as they are no longer needed, the EU said in its new guidelines, which are part of a broader effort to coordinate exit strategies among member states when they slowly lift existing lock-down measures.
EU Commissioner Thierry Breton told a French Senate hearing committee on Monday that he plans to discuss Apple’s project with Google with Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and reiterated that contact-tracing apps in Europe would be implemented on a voluntary basis.
France’s Parliament will discuss the app, which has been developed by Inria, the government entity in charge of technological research, on April 28. Users will download it on a voluntary basis, but further details haven’t been made public.
Members won’t get to decide whether to modify its implementation, even though lawmakers from both the Republican and Socialist groups have demanded a vote on text framing the use and technical aspects of the tracking app. While the government hasn’t responded, the French privacy watchdog will review the plan for the tracking app this week.
The French branch of the Human Rights League has said that any system put in place should be based on “information that is easy to read and understand” to allow citizens “specific free and informed consent,” something it says isn’t the case given the various technologies currently being debated.