PARIS (AP) – France launches official coronavirus contact detecting app aimed at containing new outbreaks as locking restrictions gradually ease and it is the first major European country to deploy smartphone technology while simmering debates on data privacy.
The StopCovid app was launched on Tuesday, just as the French government allowed people to revisit restaurants and cafes, parks and beaches, and museums and monuments. It was available in Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store.
Neighbors, including the UK, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, are developing their own apps, although they use different technical protocols, which raises questions about compatibility across Europe’s borders.
Authorities hope the app can help manage virus flare-ups in reopening the economy in France, which has been living under some of Europe’s most severe restrictions since becoming one of the hardest hit by the pandemic , with nearly 29,000 deaths.
Some Parisians were eager to use the technology to bring life back to normal.
Cafe waiter Paul Hubert said he was ready to download the app because he sees “more benefits than risks.”
“To me, it sounds like I’m wearing a mask in a store,” said Hubert, 24. “It’s easy and can help protect others.”
The various European apps use energy-efficient Bluetooth signals to anonymously register the presence of other users in the area. Under the French system, data is uploaded to government-managed central servers. Users who test positive can notify others who have been in close contact for at least 15 minutes so they can isolate themselves and seek treatment.
France, like Britain, rejected a new mobile software interface for tracking apps developed jointly by the American tech giants Google and Apple, rather than choosing to build it themselves. The Google Apple system uses a “decentralized” system backed by privacy experts because it stores data on phones, but British and French officials say it doesn’t give them enough information to manage outbreaks.
Civil liberties groups fear that app tracking is a gateway to increased government oversight, but Cedric O, French minister for digital affairs, dismissed those concerns.
“The problem with a centralized protocol is that you have to trust and you have to trust your state, but we are in a democratic state, we have checks and balances,” O told the AP.
The government says the app does not track the location and removes user data after 14 days.
Some French lawmakers have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the app when few people install the app and because of potential technical issues. O said the app detects about 80% of the surrounding phones via Bluetooth.
Parisian Sami Mounir said he will not download it due to privacy issues.
“We don’t know what they can do with the data or if they can be hacked,” said 31-year-old Mounir. “Moreover, it is health data, it is too sensitive.”
Officials and experts say that tracking apps is not a panacea against the virus, but it can help time-consuming manual tracking of contacts.
Professor Arnaud Fontanet, epidemiologist at the Paris Pasteur Institute and a member of the scientific committee advising French President Emmanuel Macron, said the app is “a tool, not a revolutionary, but a useful tool.”
France and other countries have set up teams to test people who test positive on their contacts. But the tracers are likely to miss strangers, so the app can be helpful, especially “ in circumstances where you’re standing next to someone who’s been infected for a long time without knowing it, ” such as on public transportation and restaurants, Fontanet said.
Other countries in Europe are struggling to build apps, often using the Google-Apple system. The tech giants’ reliance on a more private system is an ironic turn after the European Union has repeatedly called in recent years not to adequately protect data privacy.
In the United States, only a few states launched launching apps early, experienced technical issues on Apple and Android phones, and have not yet been widely downloaded. Other states build apps using Google Apple technology.
The Italian Immuni app, based on the Google Apple system, was available to download from Monday and will be tested next week before rolling out nationwide. The authorities say that at least 60% of Italy’s 60 million inhabitants must use it to be effective.
Switzerland launched a pilot test of its SwissCovid app last week, which will run until mid-June when the government is expected to introduce legislation for the app.
Germany hired software company SAP and wireless provider Deutsche Telekom to build its decentralized ‘Corona-Warn app’. “Developers say that the” data from the app “is stored locally on each device, preventing access and control of data by authorities or anyone else.”
Britain launched a massive nationwide track and trace program on Friday, including 25,000 human contact tracers, but the tracing app, which is being tested, is not ready yet, and it’s unclear when it will launch.
European apps voluntarily encourage people to use them. If the app is mandatory, “people certainly won’t be using it,” said Ingmars Pukis, a vice president at the Latvian wireless provider LMT, who helped develop the country’s tracing app, which was released Friday and also based on the Google-Apple standard.
EPFL, the Swiss research institute that has helped develop SwissCovid, said that while other European countries build apps based on the same decentralized protocol, it should allow different systems to work together when users travel.
But that omits the British and French systems.
The French government’s choice of technology means that the French app is not compatible with foreign apps. O suggested that cross-border commuters and travelers should work around the problem by downloading the app from their destination country.
Chan reported from London. Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.
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