French data protection body approves controversial StopCovid tracking app

·2-min read

France’s StopCovid contact tracing smartphone app is set to be rolled out at the weekend after it got the green light Tuesday from the national data protection authority.

The technology, used by many governments around the world to monitor the coronavirus, has aroused the fears of privacy and civil liberties defenders – who say it brings France too close to a surveillance state.

Developed on French soil by researchers and companies under the supervision of the government, StopCovid will be purely voluntary, but its use needs to be widespread if it’s to play any meaningful role in breaking the epidemic chain.

In an official notice published Tuesday morning, the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) found the application respected laws relating to privacy protection, though it did make some final recommendations for its implementation.

Now, StopCovid must also win over a majority of MPs when it’s debated and voted on in parliament on Wednesday, before it can finally be made available for general use.

How does it work?

The app uses Bluetooth to interact with nearby phones and detect when users come into contact with potential coronavirus carriers, generating an anonymous numerical ID that’s exchanged with other phones also running the app.

The ID of anyone who tests positive is red-flagged, and a warning is then sent to those who cross paths with an infected person within a two-week period. The app does not, however, reveal details about where and when the encounter took place. Geolocation data is not recorded.

The French Ministry of Economy and Finance has shared screenshots of the app and the notifications that will be sent in the event of contact with a suspected virus carrier.

However, opponents argue the data is not “anonymous”, but rather “pseudonymised”, with no guarantees the government won’t have access to the information behind the identifier and use it for other purposes after the crisis.

A prototype of the app has been tested both under “real conditions” and in laboratories since France’s gradual exit from strict lockdown began on 11 May.

Experts in France are hopeful the worst of the epidemic may be over, after officials on Sunday reported the smallest daily rise in new virus cases since the lockdown began on 17 March.