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France isolated in its showdown with Apple and Google

The TraceTogether tracking application, used in Singapore on March 20, 2020. CATHERINE LAI / AFP

This is an unexpected setback for the French contact tracking application project, StopCovid. Sunday, April 26, the German government announced that it was reorienting its implementation project, hitherto close to the French “centralized” model, to adopt a “decentralized” approach.

For several weeks, debates have been raging on the best way to design these tools. Under certain conditions, they can be a useful aid in detecting and isolating cases of “asymptomatic” Covid-19, by retracing the list of people who have been in contact with a sick person. In almost all democratic countries interested in these applications, projects rely on the use of Bluetooth smartphones to detect and record contacts lasting more than fifteen minutes between two people.

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But another point is far from achieving the same unanimity: the storage of information. France, like the United Kingdom and, until recently, Germany, is banking on a “centralized” approach: the non-nominative data would be stored on central servers and controlled by the health authorities. Another approach provides, however, that the key information necessary for the operation of the service is stored directly on users' smartphones and circulates between them when necessary.

This “decentralized” model is supported in particular by Apple and Google. The two giants, whose software is used on almost all phones in the world, announced on April 10 a common software interface, which governments are encouraged to use to build their applications. But several states, starting with France which raises a question of “National sovereignty”, believe that the two companies should not force countries to use their common tool.

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Restrictions on accessing Bluetooth

However, for the moment, “centralized” applications are malfunctioning. “The operating methods of the iPhone do not allow us to run the application properly on these phones, regretted Cedric O, the Secretary of State responsible for digital, in an interview with Sunday newspaper April 26. This is why we are in discussions with Apple, just like the other European countries and the European Commission. We need the company to be able to meet the demand of the States, even if the iPhones represent only 20% of the French fleet. “

Main criticism: the conditions of development of applications for iOS, the central software of iPhone. In general, application developers are subject to a number of restrictions by Apple on the use of Bluetooth to protect user privacy and battery life. iOS thus severely limits access to Bluetooth of applications that run in the “background”, that is to say, which are not directly used by the owner of the phone, but which remain open.

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The TraceTogether application, used in Singapore, which operates on a centralized model and was developed before the common interface of Google and Apple, is therefore experiencing major difficulties on iOS: the user must leave it open in permanently and do not switch to another application. This greatly limits other uses of the smartphone, and does not encourage intensive adoption and use of TraceTogether – however crucial for it to be effective.

Similar issues also affect the latest versions of Android from Google. TraceTogether is highly rated on the Google online store, seeming to indicate significant technical issues.

The suspicious European Parliament

After Germany’s about-face, France seems increasingly isolated to ask Apple for technical changes. Australia, which has just launched its own “centralized” application, called CovidSafe, should later switch to a “decentralized” model and use the interface of Google and Apple, according to information from the Guardian.

The reasons for Germany's move to a “decentralized” approach are not entirely clear: Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday April 27 that decentralization would do more “Create trust”, and would facilitate broad adoption by citizens. But according to an anonymous government source cited by the Reuters news agency, Apple's refusal to change its position on how Bluetooth use works would have precipitated this reversal. The fact remains that across the Rhine, criticism of the “centralized” approach, and its potential risks to privacy, had been very strong in recent weeks. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages in terms of privacy, which have been the subject of heated debate for several weeks.

At the European level, the French position also remains fragile. It remains only the United Kingdom which confirmed, Monday, not to retain the technical solution “decentralized” from Apple and Google: the choice fell on the application developed by Palantir in collaboration with National Health Service, the British public health service. In Italy, where the Immuni application project would also use geolocation of users, the choice between a centralized or decentralized system has not yet been made. And Spain, originally a supporter of the centralized approach, would now favor the decentralized protocol, according to information from Reuters.

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Despite the support of European Commissioner Thierry Breton, who spoke with Apple CEO Tim Cook on the subject, the European Parliament also seems wary of the “centralized” approach. “The data [issues de ces applications] should not be stored in centralized databases, which are always at risk and which could jeopardize the large-scale adoption of these applications ”, estimated a resolution adopted on April 17. Still in Brussels, but on the side of the national government, the question does not even arise. Belgium abandoned on April 23 its implementation project, judging that the contact tracing (“Tracing of contacs”) carried out in a conventional manner, “by hand”, would be more effective.

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