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France may get controversial StopCovid app this week

StopCovid, the coronavirus smartphone “tracing app”, could be available in France from this weekend, if it is approved in parliament this week, the government has said, amid ongoing criticism and concerns.

In an interview with newspaper Le Figaro, junior minister for digital affairs, Cédric O, said that the new app would be released subject to approval by the Assemblée Nationale.

He said: “Subject to the vote in Parliament, the app could be available in Apple and Android app stores from this weekend.”

A final debate and vote on the issue are scheduled to take place in the Assemblée Nationale, and in the Senate, this Thursday (May 28).

The app is intended to help affected users understand how their movements could infect others, and to alert those they have been in contact with over the previous two weeks, so that they too can take precautions to avoid spreading coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19.

The government agreed to hold a debate and vote in light of the controversy surrounding the app. Yet, a vote was not legally required, as use of the app will be strictly voluntary.

The app is anonymous, and - beyond downloading it to your phone - does not require you to input any personal details. It simply asks you to turn on Bluetooth, and accept notifications.

Then, when it registers that users (all of whom will need to have the app on their phones, and have their phones with them at the time) have been within one metre of each other for at least 15 minutes, it will keep an anonymous note of this.

If one of the users is later diagnosed with Covid-19, and decides to let the app know, anyone who has been in contact with them will receive an alert via their own app.

But the app will not say who the ill person is, and will keep data encrypted and anonymous.

Criticisms and suggestions

But critics of the app have said that it could infringe on people’s rights and privacy.

One LREM MP, Sacha Houlié, of Vienne, said that he would vote against it. He said: “I am doing this neither for glory nor strategy, but simply to stay true to my values. StopCovid is a profoundly dangerous and useless project. The fears I had have been confirmed.”

And Philippe Gosselin, MP for opposition party Les Républicains - and a member of French data privacy commission la Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) - also said that he was sceptical. He said: “I am very critical. We are, bit by bit, adopting very intrusive measures. The risk is that we create a precedent, and what is acceptable for Covid may be seen as such for other things in the future.”

In France, information security agency l’Agence Nationale de la Sécurité des Systèmes d’Information (Anssi) also issued a list of recommendations for the app, including the tweaking or changing of the algorithm used.

The CNIL has also been tasked with considering the security of the app. It has been largely positive towards it, but also issued a list of suggested adjustments.

Lastly, national digital council le Conseil National du Numérique even suggested that the name be changed from StopCovid to AlerteCovid, as it said that this would be a more accurate description of the app’s function than “stop”.

International charities such as Amnesty International, and French human rights group la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH), have criticised the app and pointed out possible problems with its use, including infringement on privacy, and also said it could lead people to stop taking other barrier precautions due to a false sense of security.

Read more: French rights group: Why StopCovid app is too risky

Decreased reluctance

But the government has repeatedly said that it will not affect people’s privacy or infringe data laws.

Mr O has said that in recent weeks he has called almost three quarters of LREM MPs to explain the benefits of the app, and he now expects the vote to go through with a majority across most parties. 

He has repeatedly insisted that the app is not “a project to kill freedom”.

He said: “There were many legitimate questions, but the more we explain, the less reluctance there is.”

Bruno Le Maire, economy minister, said: “[Cédric] Mr O has done good work, he did not take no for an answer. He has successfully convinced us. He is a totally-engaged junior minister, and very competent, who has built up a relationship of trust.”

One LREM MP, Éric Bothorel, who is also a technology specialist, said: “No technology is ever 100% secure, but [Mr O] has been attentive and honest in his work.”

Bruno Sportisse, CEO of Inria, which is spearheading the StopCovid project in France, has said that the app is a “contact tracing system that respects European values”, and is not “a surveillance tool”, because, unlike apps and similar systems in China, it does not use geolocalisation, and is anonymous.

Tests and challenges

Mr Sportisse explained: “We have had to work on the security, with respect to people’s private lives, and put in place a framework to avoid any deviation of the app from its intended purpose - and ensure that it can be used by millions of people.”

The app has been created in just six weeks, and has been tested by around 60 soldiers at the Inria site in Rocquencourt (Yvelines, Île-de-France). This included test simulations such as going to the supermarket, or attending a football match. A further test was done with transport company RATP on the Metro one evening. 

Initial results in those test cases suggest that the app managed to trace 75-80% of would-be contacts.

However, there were challenges, including with the Bluetooth technology, which is what the app uses to trace contacts; as well as with the use of data, with tech giants Apple and Google suggesting methods that have been highly criticised in France - including the app requiring people’s Bluetooth to be turned on permanently.

Maryse Artiguelong, vice president of human rights group LDH, said that this would be “totally scandalous”.

European cooperation?

This lack of consensus has caused rifts between European countries, with each taking a different stance on the best way to develop each app.

France had initially been working with Germany and Switzerland, but the Swiss decided to adopt the solution suggested by Google and Apple, and Germany is still undecided.

France has therefore partnered with the UK, and is also working closely with Italy and Spain.

However, there are currently no plans to create a European-wide app, and it is likely that there will be a different app for each country - at least at first.

Mr Sportisse said: “This [a pan-European app] may come in a second phase.”

Several groups are working on the project, including the European Commission voluntary eHealth Network; and European telecoms standardisation organisation the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

Internationally, only Norway and Australia have so far released similar apps.

Related stories

Covid contact tracing app: a risk to rights?

France to review Covid-19 trace app for June

French Senate votes ‘conditions’ on deconfinement bill

Covid contact tracing brigades in France: What we know

Covid-19 France: App may flag up infection risk

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