France asks Google and Apple for their ‘private’ Coronavirus tracing API to be a little less private, with the easing of data sharing with governments
France has thrown a potential spanner into the plans for the Covid-19 tracking technology that tech giants Apple and Google are jointly developing.
On 10 April it was revealed that Apple and Google were jointly developing an application programming interface (API) that could assist governments in tracking the spread of of Covid-19 through the use of Bluetooth built into smartphones.
The technology, which is planned to be deployed on an anonymised, opt-in basis, will let authorised Covid-19 contact-tracing apps work together more efficiently. The theory is that it could eventually help enable authorities to phase out the lockdowns that have been imposed across much of the world due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Apple and Google have stated their API would first be made available to the developers of third-party contact tracing apps by mid-May, before being rolled out directly into Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems, making separate apps unnecessary.
The companies propose using smartphones’ Bluetooth signals to determine which other devices a user has been in contact with long enough to have put them at risk of exposure to the virus.
The collaboration on the API enables both Android and iOS phones to work together.
If a user on that list of contacts then tests positive for Covid-19, the original user would be alerted and could then voluntarily get themselves tested or go into self isolation.
The technology does not record personal information, and no GPS location data is involved.
To ensure privacy, identification numbers are stored on external servers, and Apple and Google have promised these are anonymised and could not be linked to a specific individual.
In addition, the contact-matching process takes place on devices themselves, rather than remotely, meaning the technology can alert users to the possibility of exposure without anyone else being notified.
But now France has publicly called for Google and Apple to weaken the privacy protections around digital contact tracing.
The French government admitted that its own plans will not work unless both tech firms make changes to the Android and iOS operating systems.
France’s digital minister, Cédric O, confirmed that it was seeking to ease Google’s and Apple’s strict limits on what data can be sent back to public health authorities in an interview with Bloomberg.
“We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system,” O was reported by the Guardian newspaper as saying.
The French problem mostly centres on Apple phones, which will impose strict limits on contact tracing apps that do not conform to the new privacy requirements.
Tracing apps on iPhones will not work when “backgrounded”, as when another app or game is in use on the phone, nor when the screen is locked entirely, the Guardian reported.
France of course is developing its own tracing app. France’s ‘StopCovid app’ is being developed by Inria – the French institute, and the French government hopes to deploy the app by 11 May, but without using the special measures Apple and Google have put in place.
That means that France would be forced to use the more limited features already built into iOS, unless Apple changes its policies and allows for far more invasive use of the Bluetooth radio.
But this will concern privacy campaigners, because although the French government has promised adoption of the app will be voluntary and will involve anonymised data, it is reported that there would be ways to “re-identify users or to infer their contact graphs” if desired.
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