Search for contacts: France is about to launch its own application, rejects the Apple and Google option

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The French application for locating StopCovid contacts will be available for download throughout the country from June 2 at noon, said French Secretary of State for the Digital Economy, Cédric O, as the country began to relax lock restrictions.

Speaking on French radio station Radio J this weekend, O confirmed that StopCovid is currently under review by Apple and Google and, unless there is a last minute technical problem, that the application will appear in iOS and Android Play stores, ready to download, starting tomorrow.

French parliament gave go-ahead to contact finder application last week, despite expectations that technology would face a hostile response from senators in the upper house of parliament due to privacy concerns , as well as questions about the effectiveness of the tool.

Like the UK, France started developing a contact finder in early April, but has now beaten its neighbor for launch. The British app was originally scheduled to be available nationwide around mid-May, but is currently being tested on the Isle of Wight and has missed its delayed official launch date of June 1.

“The app can only come out when it’s ready, and it’s very difficult to develop technologically,” said O. “An app like this normally takes up to two years to launch, and we launched it in two and a half months; and in addition, before applications in English, Italian and Spanish. ”

France and the UK have decided to create their own digital contact search model, rather than adopting a protocol jointly proposed by Apple and Google – a decision that sets them apart from most of their European counterparts. The Google and Apple Contact Tracking API follows a decentralized approach, which tech giants say is a better way to protect user privacy.

The French team behind StopCovid, instead, implemented a centralized protocol called Robert (ROBust and Privacy-presERving proximity Tracing). Robert assigns each user a permanent identifier stored in a central server; each permanent ID is then linked to regularly generated random IDs, which are broadcast to other smartphones via Bluetooth.

If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they will receive a QR code to scan in the application. This triggers an alert on the random identifiers that have been picked up by the tool, and which correspond to risky interactions – as defined by the Robert protocol, those that occurred within a meter and for at least 15 minutes .

Although the data is encrypted and anonymous, having a central database of permanent and random identifiers linked to users poses a risk, both to hackers and, for some privacy activists, to the ‘State itself.

Last week, the French digital freedoms agency CNIL confirmed that the application was legal and does not infringe on the right to privacy, but argued that the tool should be regularly evaluated. A bug fix called YesWeHack is already working to detect all of the application’s vulnerabilities. O said fewer than ten faults have been reported to date, none of which were critical. In no case, he added, would anyone have access to users’ social interactions or to the list of people who tested positive for the virus.

One of the reasons given for adopting a centralized rather than decentralized approach is that it allows better supervision of the whole system by public health services. Specifically, this means that false positives and false negatives could be better controlled, so that warnings are not sent to users unnecessarily.

Marcel Salathé, an epidiemologist at the EPFL University in Switzerland, who worked on the Swiss contact search application (which follows a decentralized model), told ZDNet: “At first, we feared that if you decentralize, you wouldn’t be able to call someone out of quarantine if the original trigger was wrong. “

“It was a concern at first, when the tests weren’t good enough; and the idea that you can trigger these systems automatically without proper testing is indeed very dangerous. You could send thousands of other people to self-quarantine with a malicious attack. But that is no longer a valid argument, now that the tests have improved. “

Salathé also argued that a key benefit of using the API offered by Apple and Google, as opposed to national centralized approaches, is that the tech giant model automatically supports compatibility with iOS and Android.

O admitted that the team behind StopCovid had initially encountered a number of difficulties, in particular to ensure that the application worked on iPhones; but he added that the problems have now been fixed and that the application has been successfully tested on the 100 best phone models most popular with French consumers.

The fact remains that a contact search application made in France will not be interoperable with applications developed in other countries, which could be problematic for French residents who wish to travel. “It’s unfortunate, but we are working to make the application interoperable in the future,” said O. “The consequences in everyday life will, however, be limited. If you want to spend your vacation in Spain, you will only have to download the Spanish app. “

Increasingly, reports have emerged calling into question the need for a contact finder. The TraceTogether tool in Singapore and the CovidSafe app in Australia have so far received mixed reviews. Critics point to the low levels of adoption seen by technology, which typically stagnate around 20-25% of the population.

O, while recognizing that health services would need a maximum number of people to download the app, also argued that the tool would start to display “macro and systemic” results even if only 10% of the the population of the occupied cities recovered it.

Targeting the entire French population is meaningless and unworkable, said O: to put things in perspective, he compared a 60% adoption with, roughly speaking, the level of download d an app like WhatsApp. “We are targeting people who live in cities, who take public transport and go to restaurants, because they are the ones who carry the virus,” he said.

The launch of the app coincides with the reopening of parks, cafes, restaurants and some schools across the country. In this context, the French government hopes that technology will help control the epidemic as people start to meet again and become less aware of the rules of social distancing.

The launch will be accompanied by a strong communications campaign that will portray the download of the app as something similar to so-called “barrier gestures,” such as washing hands or sneezing in the elbow.

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