France looks past Google, Apple for virus contact tracing

News Desk
20 May 2020, Wed
Published: 12:27

France looks past Google, Apple for virus contact tracing

rance, which has long been skeptical of the growing power of US tech titans, is seeking to bypass Apple and Google for a smartphone app to help trace people infected with the novel coronavirus.

The move, which leaves France relatively isolated in Europe alongside Britain and Norway, reflects differences on how such apps should be structured, who have access to sensitive data and their effectiveness.

A number of countries have already deployed "contact tracing" apps on smartphones that track a person's contacts and alert them if need be, generating vital information to help contain outbreaks and slow the spread of the virus as nations ease lockdowns and get back to work.

These apps can be based either on a decentralised or centralised architecture.

A decentralised architecture keeps the information about whom a person has been in contact with on the smartphone.

If the person declares themselves to have been infected by the coronavirus, then those people deemed to have been in close contact for an extended period receive a notification to isolate themselves and get tested.

In a centralised system the data is managed by an authority, say a national health service, that would have access to the data to ensure those who are exposed are indeed following the proper health and isolation recommendations.

Apple and Google banded together last month to develop coronavirus contact tracing technology that would work across their operating systems.

But France, along with London, contest that argument and prefer a centralised architecture that will provide them with the information needed to ensure the spread of the disease is effectively contained.

Norway also opted for a centralized system for its "Smittestop" or "stop infection" app launched last month.

Being dependent on Apple and Google means "staying in an extremely restrictive framework for usage" of the data, said a source close to France's contract tracing effort.

"It is Google and Apple who are defining the debate" in what is essentially a public health issue, the source added.

People would need to keep the app open at all times, an inconvenience that would likely lead to many people not having it running on their phones.

So far Apple has resisted pleas from France and other countries for help to get around that technical issue.

While the European Commission has not yet taken a formal position on the options, it acknowledges a decentralised system is better on data privacy grounds.

"If both approaches can be in conformity with data protection laws, from a point of view of minimising the collection of data, the decentralized approach is preferable as fewer data would be stored" on a centralized server, a Commission spokesman told AFP.

Several European countries are expected to roll out contact tracing apps in June, which should provide some indication as to the best strategies.

France hopes to have its app in operation on June 2, and the official leading its development has said it will work very well on an iPhone despite Apple's lack of cooperation.

The technology arm of Britain's National Health Service has been testing its centralised system on the Isle of Wight since May 5 and plans to unroll it nationwide in the coming weeks.

Germany has opted for a decentralised system compatible with the Apple/Google initiative that it hopes will be ready in several weeks.

Italy, which has also gone for a decentralised system, should have its app ready by the end of May, Innovation Minister Paola Pisano told the Corriere della Sera daily on Monday.

In Austria, the Red Cross has launched an app based on a centralised model that has 600,000 users, but it is expected to evolve into a decentralised application.

Switzerland is currently testing its decentralised app. Source: AFP