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StopCOVID: France's controversial tracing app ready by June, government says

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StopCOVID: France's controversial tracing app ready by June, government says
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The French app StopCovid, which aims to trace people who have tested positive for coronavirus in order to slow the spread of the illness, will be ready on 2 June, the French government announced on Tuesday.

"We will be ready on 2 June," French minister for digital technologies Cedric O said on TV channel BFM. "The testing phase will start next week."

Cedric O added that if the testing phase went as planned, a parliamentary debate on the app could be held "in the week of 25 May" to allow for a launch from 2 June.

Last week, the French government postponed a debate on the tracing app project after many questions were raised over privacy issues.

The French Prime Minister suggested that the app would be submitted to a specific vote but no date has been set yet.

"Questions concerning civil liberties seem to me to be well-founded. They have to be asked and discussed", Edouard Philipe told MPs on 27 April.

The app has been criticised by many, including MPs from the ruling party "En Marche".

Cedric O said on Tuesday that the government had declined digital solutions offered by Google and Apple to develop the app, citing "a certain number of issues in terms of privacy and interconnection with the health system".

"It is due to these concerns, and not because we see Apple and Google as big bad wolves, that we refused to use their technology," O said.

"We will have an app that will work well on all smartphones," he added. "The fight against coronavirus is the role of the states, not necessarily that of US digital giants."

How can these apps be useful?

Health agencies believe mobile phones can help efforts to track who COVID-19-infected people have been in contact with.

Over a dozen apps are in development across Europe. The EU has called for the projects to be harmonised, but the continent is divided on how to align the technology’s potential with privacy concerns.

A pan-European initiative to develop a common framework, PEPP-PT, has been abandoned by Switzerland and Spain over where data is stored.

Germany has also dropped out and ditched plans for a homegrown app. Instead, it’s looking to technology giants Apple and Google for support.

Belgium was an early proponent of contact tracing apps. On Friday, telecommunications minister Philippe De Backer said an app release had been cancelled and the government would opt for manual, human tracing.

How do such apps work?

Each software is different in design – but trace in similar ways.

Bluetooth signals keep track of anonymous devices that we come in contact with for more than a few minutes.

Running in the background, the app generates an anonymous, numerical ID. That number is exchanged with other mobile phones running the app.

If someone later tests positive, those numerical IDs are anonymously red-flagged. Anyone who’s crossed paths is told to isolate, but the app doesn’t reveal details about where and when the suspected transmission took place.

Unlike similar technology in China, GPS and Wifi features are disabled so that location data is not recorded.

What are the security concerns over the app?

Many are still sceptical about implementing this type of technology at the state level.

Les Républicains, a conservative political party in France, has expressed concern about how the data could be used after the crisis. And it is not only political parties, there is a pattern of general concern surrounding people's data being surrendered in a good cause and then being used for non-essential purposes later.

“We need to be careful. There’s legal precedent that we could be establishing now with this framework, and it could later be expanded to other areas,” said French MP Philippe Gosselin.

Designers admit that even with the most complex high-tech app, existing precautions like social distancing and frequent hand washing need to continue to keep the virus under control.