France approves release of controversial COVID-19 tracking app

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By Lauren Chadwick
A man holds a mobile phone displaying a screenshot of the tracking application StopCovid developed by the French government.
A man holds a mobile phone displaying a screenshot of the tracking application StopCovid developed by the French government.   -  Copyright  THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

France's Senate has voted to approve the release of a controversial coronavirus tracking app Wednesday evening. 187 voted in favour of the app, and 127 against it. 

Earlier that day, France's National Assembly approved the app by a vote of 338 to 215 amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

App measures proximity

The tracking app, called StopCovid, uses bluetooth to trace when a phone is in proximity to others who have the application.

Once someone records a positive test for COVID-19, the application sends out an alert to those who have been in contact with that person for more than 15 minutes so they can self-isolate to prevent further spread of the virus.

The phone app does not reveal the identity of the person who tests positive for coronavirus.

Data protection advocates concerned

This type of proximity phone app has come under fire by data protection advocates who say that governments could track location information or store users' personal data.

France's digital economy minister Cédric O has said that the app will not be used to geolocate users but some members of parliament still raised concerns about its functions.

French MP Charles de Courson compared the phone app to Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", asking whether "general surveillance" was moving forward during the parliamentary debate.

"The illusions of a better world thanks to the digital evaporate and the citizens discover the progressive loss of their freedom," he said.

The president of the parliament's laws committee, Yaël Braun-Pivet, said her "initial fear was a sort of 'Big Brother'. I did not want the app to be obligatory or to geolocate or conserve data."

Braun-Pivot said that she was now satisfied with the app which people can install or delete and that is "independent of Apple and Google."

"It should be up to users to decide whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of using contact tracing apps," said Greg Nojeim, the Senior Counsel and Director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Centre for Democracy & Technology in Washington DC.

"Governments can encourage app use by dropping demands that location information be collected through the apps, and by ensuring that users control the data these apps will generate about their contacts."

Other countries are considering the use of phone apps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The UK is currently testing a phone app on the Isle of Wight.

The French phone app could become available for download as early as next week. The next step is for the Senate to vote and debate on the app.