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France responds to fears over microchipped face masks

The director general of health in France has sought to reassure the public after questions emerged over why some face masks have an electronic chip inside them, with some fearing they could be used to trace wearers.

Jérôme Salomon countered a question from a journalist at news site FranceInter, who asked: “Do you think it’s reasonable that some manufacturers sell masks with RFID chips embedded? Many manufacturers make these. There are even videos circulating, showing people taking their masks apart. What is the point of these chips?”

Mr Salomon said: “I can tell you that fabric masks in France are excellent. I wear one everyday and they are better for our environment; you can wash them and reuse them. They are made in France and do not have a chip inside, I can guarantee it.”

Yet, some masks do indeed have chips inside - but these are not intended for any kind of identification, tracking, or tracing purposes.

Instead, they enable the manufacturer to count how many times the mask has been washed and reused, so it can then alert the user when the maximum recommended limit has been reached.

These are mainly used in professional settings. Masks sold to the general public are unlikely to contain a chip.

RFID chips (full name: radio-frequency identification microchips) use electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. The chips - which are similar to those used on credit cards - can communicate with antennas, and can transmit information such as price, stock, validity, and the number of times it has been washed.

The French company UBI Solutions explained their use to FranceInter, and said the technology had already been used for many years in other similar situations, such as frequently-washed hospital bed sheets.

The masks with chips are generally used by companies in business or healthcare settings, where masks are only permitted to be worn 30-60 times, after which they are no longer deemed safe.

UBI Solutions, for example, is a leading French company that manufactures a mask called “Connected Mask”, which includes an RFID chip inside. The chip communicates with a smartphone app, enabling users to check how many times it has been washed and reused.

The chip also enables employees to check when the mask needs to be washed, and when it should no longer be used.

It also means that industrial launderers - which launder fabrics for big operations such as hotels and cleaning companies - can check to see that safety standards, as set by standardisation agency l’Agence Française de Normalisation (Afnor), are being maintained.

Fabrice Zehra, president of UBI Solutions, confirmed: “The point of this technology is not to trace the actions of individuals nor to limit their freedoms. It is the mask that is tracked, not the user. There is no link between the wearer of the mask, and the mask itself.”

The confirmation comes as masks become increasingly in demand in public areas in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Cases are currently on the rise in France. The most recent figures (from Saturday August 15) show that there were 3,310 new cases in the previous 24 hours - a rise of 500 compared to the day before (2,846).

The number of clusters has also risen, to 252, with 17 newly identified in the past 24 hours. Yet, the number of hospitalisations for Covid-19-linked issues is relatively stable.

Full (and updated) figures for France, including a comparison with the rest of the world, can be seen on the Santé Publique France website here.

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