France StopCovid app: How it works and how to get it

Controversial contact tracing smartphone app StopCovid is to be available in France on a voluntary basis from Monday June 1, after it was approved for use by the government. We consider how - and if - it will work.

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The app was approved by votes in the Assemblée Nationale and the Senate yesterday (Wednesday May 27). It was approved by 338 votes to 215, with 21 abstentions.

In the Senate, 186 voted in favour, 127 against, and 29 abstained.

Read more: France may get controversial StopCovid app this week

The government is now intending to launch the app on Monday June 1, the day before the second stage of deconfinement is set to begin, as laid out by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

Junior minister for digital affairs, Cédric O, who has been spearheading the campaign for the app, said: “The government’s objective is that the StopCovid app will be available from Monday June 1.”

Despite criticisms that the app will infringe on personal freedom and privacy, ministers in favour of its use have sought to “guarantee” its safety.

Justice minister Nicole Belloubet said the app was “temporary, installed voluntarily, does not identify you, and is transparent [in how it works]”.

After the vote in the Senate, digital affairs minister Mr O said: “[StopCovid] will be useful in the fight against the virus. Our only objective is to save lives.”

He had previously insisted that the app is not “a project to kill freedom”.

How does it work?

The app is voluntary, and anonymous. It will be available to download on both Apple and Android phones from your usual app store.

Beyond downloading it to your phone, it does not require you to input any personal details. It 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, and have Bluetooth turned on) 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, that person will be given a QR code by their testing lab, which they can take a photo of with their phone, and let the app know they have been diagnosed.

Then, anyone who has been in contact with them will receive an alert via their own app. They will be invited to take precautions and be tested themselves if necessary.

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

App criticisms

Critics have said that the app will infringe personal liberty and the right to privacy.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the France Insoumise party, who voted against the app, has called it “ineffective” and a “freedom killer”.

Writing on Twitter, he said: “I do not want someone to know, or even to be able to know, who I have spent 15 minutes with, within one metre. It’s none of your business.”

Damien Abad MP condemned the app as “arriving too late”, and “a step too far” towards “an Orwellian” society.

One LREM MP, Sacha Houlié, of Vienne, who voted against the app, this week 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.”

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

Similarly, privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in the US, Bruce Schneier, condemned the idea on his blog this week, after an interview with BuzzFeed News.

He wrote: "My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value. I'm not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy...This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it's just techies doing techie things because they don't know what else to do.”

Further critics have said that the app’s requirement for users to have Bluetooth turned on all the time is another tech failing, as Bluetooth does not work “in the background” of your phone, and can therefore drain the batteries very quickly.

Apple iPhones can also be set to block Bluetooth communication from other devices.

Supporters of French-made app

Yet, supporter Bruno Retailleau MP, said that he wanted to “give a French app a chance”, in the “name of digital sovereignty” faced with the dominance of “the American GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon] sirens”.

The app is French-made, as the government decided not to enlist the help of Google and Apple - in contrast to some countries - and instead tasked French digital research institute INRIA to create the technology.

The app also received the “green light” from digital freedoms agency la Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertés (CNIL), who on Tuesday (May 26) said that the app respected current laws on people’s right to privacy. Yet, it said that the app should be subject to regular evaluation and reports from users.

One MP said: “The [real] question to be answered is if the public will use it.”

Effectiveness levels

Some have said that the app will only work if enough people use it properly. A study from Oxford University in the UK, published in mid-April, said that it would require use by at least 60% of the population to be effective.

The study was based on a simulation of a town of one million people, in which the Covid-19 virus is circulating.

Researchers said: “Our models show that we can stop the epidemic if at least 60% of the population uses a contact tracing app.”

Excluding children from the count, in practice, this would mean that 33 million people in France aged 15 and over would need to install and use StopCovid for it to work. This is more than the number of people who downloaded super-popular apps Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp for the whole of 2019.

But Mr O defended the app, and said: “Some commentators have said that we will need at least 60% of the population to install the app [for it to be effective]. But this makes no sense, as Christophe Fraser, epidemiologist at Oxford, clearly said.”

He has based his conclusion on another part of the same Oxford University study, which said that if the app was used with other precautionary measures, the required percentage would be much lower.

It said: “Our most recent models show that if 42% of the population uses the application, as well as the measures that reduce our social interaction by 40%, we can completely stop the risk of a ‘second wave’.”

This second percentage, 42%, represents just fewer than 25 million adults. In comparison, the less-common consumer app Yuka was downloaded in France 18 million times.

Other countries

Other countries worldwide have used similar apps, with varying success.

In Singapore, the government app TraceTogether - its version of StopCovid - was launched in mid-March. But two months later, the government admitted that only a quarter of the population was using it. The government now plans to merge the app with other more popular ones.

In Australia, 3.5 million people installed their version of StopCovid - CovidSafe - in the five days after it launched at the beginning of May. But the government warned that many more people would need to download it for it to be properly effective.

While in the Australian capital of Canberra the app has now been downloaded on 4.5 million smartphones, figures suggest that 1.5 million more people would need to install it to make it effective.

Advertising campaigns have now spread across the city, including on billboards, and even companies such as McDonald’s and other fast-food companies have been spreading the message to customers.

Even in countries where apps have been downloaded en masse, such as Iceland, the effectiveness is still unproven.

A study published in the journal the MIT Technology Review, said: “Almost 40% of Icelandic people downloaded the tracing app [Rakning-19] - and it didn’t really help.”

A member of the local police said: “Rakning has been useful in some cases, but it didn’t really change much for us.”

It has been suggested that “old fashioned” tracing methods, including phone calls and investigations “on the ground” - as well as continued social distancing methods - are more effective in “flattening the curve” of infections.

Apps should be seen as a “complement”, and not a replacement, for these existing methods, critics have said.

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