In brief

  • The French government is developing StopCovid, a centralized coronavirus contact tracing app.
  • Authorities are asking Apple to change its Bluetooth policy for the app to work properly.
  • Local IT experts have published a statement, warning about potential privacy risks StopCovid might present.

The French government is being met with strong resistance as it prepares to roll out a contact tracing app to deal with the coronavirus. The app, called StopCovid, wants to track French citizens’ whereabouts and inform them if they come into contact with people who are infected.

On April 26, over 140 French cybersecurity and privacy experts signed a public warning about the potential risks of StopCovid and other similar apps.

“All these applications involve very significant risks with regard to respect for privacy and individual freedoms. One of them is mass surveillance by private or public actors, against which the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) committed itself through the Copenhagen resolution,” experts stated.

France wants to bypass privacy hurdles

French authorities have found themselves locked in a standoff with American tech giant Apple since the app goes against iOS’s built-in privacy-protection mechanisms, raising concerns in regard to its privacy.

Currently, iPhones’ operating system doesn’t allow any apps to continuously scan for other devices and send users’ data out via Bluetooth connection in the background. To do so, a smartphone needs to be unlocked and applications must be active on the main screen. 

Yet, the background functionality is a big part of StopCovid, because it wants to constantly store and send the data to a central server managed by state health services. The French government has asked Apple to remove this privacy-focused “hurdle” for it to work.

“We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied to our health system,” France’s digital minister Cedric O told Bloomberg.

He said that ministers have already discussed their concerns with Apple but “aren’t making progress” as the company instead refers them "to its plans for a similar app in partnership with Google."

As Decrypt reported previously, American tech corporations Apple and Google have announced their plans to integrate a new Bluetooth-based coronavirus contact tracing technology into the iOS and Android operating systems. The solution has already received its fair share of criticism over its privacy implications, yet the companies claimed that their users’ privacy would still come first.

In this light, some experts argue that France’s unwillingness to use Apple-Google’s API (application programming interface) might be dictated by politics rather than a necessity, especially since the tech giants’ joint initiative offers mostly the same contact tracing functionality—except apps that use it must comply with its privacy-protection rules.

"Those privacy principles are not going to change. They are fundamental minimum privacy principles that are needed to make this work," Gary Davis, Apple's global director of privacy and law enforcement requests, reportedly stated during a webinar hosted by the liberal Renew faction in the European Parliament.

Tomorrow, the French Parliament is scheduled to discuss StopCovid. Though it looks like unless Apple and Google budge on their privacy principles, France will have to find a new way to track its citizens.