Tech giant Apple in stand-off with France over Coronavirus contact-tracing app privacy measures

Coronavirus tracking mobile app. Credit: VNExpress

Tech giant Apple in stand-off with France over Coronavirus contact-tracing app privacy measures

FRANCE is pressing Apple to let its forthcoming Coronavirus contact-tracing app work in the background on iPhones without building in pertinent privacy measures. One of the main problems seems to be that France’s system would let the app gain more information about smartphone owners than Apple and its partner Google want to allow.

Apple and Google announced on April 10 they were working together to provide a software building-block that will let authorised Covid-19 contact-tracing apps work more efficiently.


Contact-tracing apps work by logging every time two or more users are close to each other for a substantial period of time.

If one device owner is subsequently diagnosed as being likely to have the virus, an alert can be sent to those they could have infected, who might be asked to self-isolate.

By using such an app in conjunction with other measures, it would, in theory, be possible to end wider lockdowns and still suppress the disease, so long as enough people take part.

Apple and Google’s method relies on using Bluetooth signals to detect matches.

But they have deliberately designed it so neither they nor the apps’ creators can see who has been given a warning.

The companies have said this is to guarantee “strong protections around user privacy,” which in turn should encourage adoption.

By contrast, Inria, the French institute developing its StopCovid app, has developed a system called Robert and although the French government has promised adoption of the app will be voluntary and involve anonymised data, the document reveals there would be ways to ‘re-identify users’ if desired.

University of Oxford computer scientist Prof Max van Kleek, who prefers the Apple-Google design pointed out that “It does preserve privacy between users but not between the user and the government.

“And that leads to the risk that the government later repurposes the system to make sure that people obey a quarantine or other kinds of things the state might want to know.”

The problem for Inria is Apple currently will not allow Bluetooth-based track-and-tracing to be carried out in the background.

So, to work, the apps would have to remain active and on-screen, limiting what else owners could do with their handsets and taking an extra toll on battery life.


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