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France Backs Virus Tracing App Following Tough Privacy Debate

Helene Fouquet and Angelina Rascouet

(Bloomberg) -- French lawmakers from the National Assembly voted in favor of a contact tracing app meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus, following an intense debate over privacy rights as the government prepares to lift more lockdown measures next week.

The application, dubbed StopCovid, was designed by a state-led task force, including the leading phone carrier Orange SA, software company Dassault Systemes SE, as well as Inria, the institute for research in digital science and technology. User data collected on the app will be sent to the nation’s health authorities in a bid to contain any re-emergence of the deadly virus.

National Assembly lawmakers backed the app use with 338 votes in favor and 215 votes against. The project has drawn criticism from privacy activists in France, who argue such tools accelerate state-surveillance technology on citizens. Digital Minister Cedric O defended the project and said it includes guarantees protecting privacy rights. He said downloading the app is voluntary and data collection and the app itself are both meant to be temporary

France started to relax lockdown rules on May 11 and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is expected to further ease controls next week. The app will be available to download on June 1 on the Apple and Alphabet’s Google app stores, O said on Wednesday.

Read More: Apple-Google Virus-Tracking Rules Put Apps in a Privacy Bind

StopCovid will work with a smartphone’s bluetooth technology and will send out an alert to its user if they come within a meter of a person carrying the virus for more than 15 minutes. In case of exposure, the user will be asked to self-isolate quickly, reach out to their doctor and get tested. The app received the backing from the privacy watchdog CNIL on Tuesday.

The approval didn’t come without warnings from lawmakers. Damien Abad, member of the National Assembly for opposition party Les Republicains criticized the app, associating it with a “nightmarish Orwellian society,” of state surveillance in a debate before the vote on Wednesday. Other lawmakers like Virginie Duby-Muller argued this app wasn’t enough to compensate for a lack of testing since the pandemic struck.

Read More: The World Embraces Contact-Tracing Technology to Fight Covid-19

Contact tracing apps have had a mixed result across the world so far. Singapore was one of the first to launch TraceTogether in March but due to its relatively low adoption, a lockdown couldn’t be avoided in the country. In Australia, which launched its own tool last month, only one person has been identified using data from it, the Guardian reported on May 23. There are still “strong doubts” about StopCovid’s compatibility with similar apps from other European countries, O told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The French app, which is similar to one being developed in the U.K., is designed by national players, unlike the apps in Switzerland and Germany, which are based on a platform jointly developed by Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

Read More: France Says Apple Bluetooth Policy Is Blocking Virus Tracker

O pushed for the homegrown solution and criticized Apple for not changing its bluetooth settings to allow the French state to ease its app’s use. France’s conflict with Apple is part of a broader debate about how much data U.S. tech giants should collect and who should have access to it.

StopCovid is “too serious a hindrance to our right to secrecy,” Sacha Houlie, member of the National Assembly for Macron’s party said before the vote on Wednesday. “I fear the surveillance society.”

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