France has become the first country in the world to openly call on Silicon Valley tech giants to remove privacy protections during the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, in order to introduce a “sovereign European health solution” that would track the movements of citizens.
The French government is aiming to unveil a contact tracing app by May 11th, when the country is expected to ease national lockdown measures that were introduced in March.
France and the European Union as a whole have come out in favour of a centralised approach to the tracking of citizens, in which data would be stored in government servers and monitored by state health services.
Currently, Apple’s operating system would prevent such an approach, as its Bluetooth function prohibits constant background tracking if the data is to be moved off the device. France claims that this privacy protection would prevent the government from developing its contact tracing app.
“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,” France’s digital minister, Cédric O, told Bloomberg News.
The system being developed by Google and Apple, which is set to be made available worldwide next month, will take a decentralised approach to tracking, with the data remaining on a user’s phone rather than being collected in a central server.
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The European Union has maintained that contact tracing apps should be voluntary, protect individual privacy, and be taken apart after the pandemic restrictions are lifted. However, a group of nearly 300 privacy experts warn that the apps could be used to introduce a surveillance state.
“We are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large,” the group wrote in an open letter.
“Some of the Bluetooth-based proposals respect the individual’s right to privacy, whilst others would enable a form of government or private sector surveillance that would catastrophically hamper trust in and acceptance of such an application by society at large,” the group added.
“We urge all countries to rely only on systems that are subject to public scrutiny and that are privacy-preserving by design (instead of there being an expectation that they will be managed by a trustworthy party), as a means to ensure that the citizen’s data protection rights are upheld,” the group concluded.
France’s parliament will debate the contact tracing app later this month, and European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Thierry Breton told the French Senate that he would be taking up the matter with Apple CEO Tim Cook.
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