The lower house of the French Parliament approved on Wednesday a contact tracing application designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus in a heated debate on the problems of confidentiality.
Legislators in the National Assembly, where the centrist party of French President Emmanuel Macron has a majority, voted 338-215 to approve the StopCovid app.
The vote, although not binding, should pave the way for the voluntary release of the app to users from Monday. The government is committed to honoring the position of legislators.
France’s privacy watchdog, CNIL, supported the application this week, saying the technology “will not lead to the creation of a list of infected people but only a list of contacts using pseudonymous data. It respects the concept of data protection. “
Governments around the world are scrambling to develop smartphone tracking apps as part of measures to keep a lid on the new Covid-19 epidemics while easing lock restrictions. Twenty countries, including many European countries, create applications based on a new mobile software interface developed jointly by the American technology giants Google and Apple. France has decided to use its own system.
Health officials have warned that tracing apps alone are not an effective method of limiting infections and should be used to support the conventional but time-consuming manual tracing of contacts, which means workers interview questioned people positive for the virus.
The French application uses low energy Bluetooth signals on mobile phones to track people with whom people infected by the virus are in close contact and informs users of a potential exposure so that they can self-isolate. It will store anonymous data in a centralized government-managed database for 14 days before erasing it.
The government says the app does not involve location tracking and guarantees user privacy.
“No one knows where the person went,” said Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet. “We only know that some people got closer at one point. “
But civil liberties groups have raised concerns about it, fearing that it will lead to increased surveillance.
A public body that monitors respect for human rights in France, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement on Tuesday that the application “disproportionately affects the rights and freedoms of all citizens “
An advocacy group for Internet users, La Quadrature du Net, said that “the deployment of an application whose objectives, technology and use entail significant risks for our society and our freedoms, for probably mediocre results (perhaps even counterproductive), is not something that we can consider acceptable. ”
Left and right opposition lawmakers voted against the application.
The far left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon denounced “the means to allow permanent control of the population and permanent losses for individual freedoms”.
The leader of the conservative group in the French National Assembly, Damien Abad, questioned the effectiveness of the application, saying that it was introduced too late. However, he said the decision for lawmakers involves “primarily an ethical rather than technical and legal discussion”.
“I do not want a society where individual freedoms and privacy are put aside,” he said.
The debate was to begin Wednesday in the Senate.
Originally intended to accompany the lifting of restrictions from May 11, the release of the application has been delayed due to technical issues.
Deputy Minister of the Digital Economy, Cedric O, said the app has been tested on 100 smartphones representing 17 brands and will be available to work with Google Android devices and Apple iPhones.
“It works well and does not drain the battery,” he said.
European countries have chosen different approaches to develop their own tracking applications as part of their strategies to prevent a second wave of virus cases after the end of national blockages.
Germany, Italy, Austria, Estonia, Switzerland and Ireland adopt a “decentralized” approach, widely preferred by researchers and privacy experts as anonymous identification codes for contacts are kept only on devices.
France and the United Kingdom have instead decided to send data to a central server, where the user identification code and those of others are downloaded. Officials say it would help them respond more quickly to virus outbreaks and help them make decisions.
The French government has refused to use the Google-Apple tracking application technology released last week, saying it lacks sufficient data privacy guarantees.
“The government believes that protecting the health of French people is an exclusive mission of the state and not of private international actors,” he said in a statement.
France, one of the most affected countries in the world, has reported at least 28,530 coronavirus-related deaths.
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