Emmanuel Macron confirmed that the government was working on the implementation of a digital solution which will make it possible to know if “we have been in contact with an infected person”. However, many technical, political and human obstacles cast doubt on the effectiveness of the system.
And if the key to was in our pocket? The government announced on April 8 that it is planning to launch a mobile application, called StopCovid, to quickly and effectively identify people who have come into contact with another person infected with the new coronavirus. “We must not neglect any path, no innovation” in the fight against the coronavirus, justified the head of state in his speech on Monday, April 13.
How would this digital plotting application work? Are there reasons to fear for our privacy? Would it only be effective? Franceinfo is looking into this subject.
What is that ?
Remember the beginnings of the epidemic in France, when it was still possible to come and go as you please. In what the authorities called stages 1 and 2, the strategy to curb the introduction of the coronavirus on the territory consisted in identifying the contaminated people, then in finding and tracing the movements of the people with whom they had been in close contact, which made it possible to locate the famous “clusters” of the disease and to isolate all those who were likely to spread it.
StopCovid consists in automating this process and deploying it on a large scale with a view to deconfinement. You install a government-created app that continuously records your contact with people you meet, and if one of them is identified as being positive for coronavirus, you receive an alert to stay and get tested so that you don't spread the virus. On paper, this is ideal: only people who are sick or likely to be sick stay at home, and others can continue to live their lives.
This initiative, announced on April 8 by the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Digital, was entrusted to a “French task force” steered by the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (Inria), a public body which brings together highly specialized researchers specializing in digital technology. Inevitably, France is not the only one to have had this idea. In Singapore, the government launched the TraceTogether application on March 20, which works exactly on this principle.
How it works ?
At the moment, little is known about how StopCovid will work. Contacted by franceinfo, Inria declined our interview request, judging “premature” to communicate on the specifics of the application. The government has however clarified that this application, like that of Singapore, would be based on the Bluetooth technology that equips all mobile phones. We also know that StopCovid will operate on a system developed by a consortium of European researchers, which has been working since the beginning of March on the basis of a common application, which the various countries can then decline.
“The idea of the application is to let your phone transmit at short range and continuously, via Bluetooth, a signal containing a unique identifier attached to your device. This identifier would be changed regularly to limit the possibilities of you. identify through him “, decrypts for franceinfo Gérôme Billois, cybersecurity expert at Wavestone.
Clearly, if StopCovid was installed on the device of a user called Aida, it would not beep “Hello, I'm Aida's phone”, But “Hello, I'm the phone XB238437”. In this example, the identifier XB238437 would only be assigned by StopCovid to the Aida device, and would be modified frequently, in order to avoid another user, who, for example, coming across Aida at the bakery every day at fixed time, cannot by deduction associate its identity with the identifier XB238437.
“In parallel, your phone would record the identifiers of other devices equipped with the application that pass within its reach, and store them in its internal memory for a limited period, for example 14 days, which corresponds to the incubation period. of the disease “, adds Gérôme Billois.
Now imagine that Aida is diagnosed positive for Covid-19 by her doctor. According to terms that remain to be defined, she would report herself as sick, perhaps through her practitioner, on StopCovid. The digital platform that controls the application, managed by the administration, will then add the different identifiers issued by their phone during the last 14 days to a list of confirmed cases, and all other users of the application who have recorded their passage to their reach during this period will receive a message inviting them to be tested and to confine themselves. So much for the theory.
Are we sure that this technology works in practice?
Not at all, and for good reason: Bluetooth technology, chosen for this application, was not designed to measure distances but to wirelessly connect different devices, such as a phone with a speaker or the audio system of a car.
“It is still possible to use Bluetooth to try to assess a distance based on the strength of the received signal: the better the reception of the signal, the more we consider that the transmitter is close”, analysis for franceinfo Baptiste Robert, hacker and independent cybersecurity consultant. “But the problem is that the signal strength varies greatly depending on the context, including the chips in the phones: if you have the latest iPhone, your phone will send a signal that deposits to death. But if you own an old Android smartphone designed by an obscure manufacturer with poor quality materials, your Bluetooth chip will be rotten, and the signal strength weak “, assene this specialist. Bluetooth 5.1, the latest version of the protocol, can certainly locate an object with an accuracy of the order of a centimeter, but only the most recent terminals are equipped with it.
With Bluetooth, there is no way to tell reliably whether a person is 4 meters or 1 meter from you. And concerning the Covid-19, that changes everything!at franceinfo
The developers of StopCovid will have to be particularly attentive to these intrinsic limits to the Bluetooth protocol to avoid errors of interpretation. Because the possibilities of “false positives” or “false negatives” abound: your application could alert you if your phone perfectly captures that of a neighbor you never meet, or on the contrary “miss” the signal of a friend with whom you would spend several hours. “As well thought out as it is, no application is capable of adequately measuring the 'quality' of contact between two individuals in the current state of technology”, sums up Baptiste Robert.
The government itself seems to be aware of the problem. “Are we going to succeed in having something that is precise enough to serve its epidemiological objective? I am optimistic but not completely certain”, said Secretary of State for Digital, Cédric O, during his hearing by senators on Tuesday, April 14.
Does StopCovid pose a threat to my privacy?
On paper no, even if no technology is foolproof. If Bluetooth was chosen despite its weaknesses to develop this digital tracking application, it is precisely because it offers guarantees in terms of protection of privacy. Unlike GPS, Bluetooth focuses only on the proximity of the devices to each other, and not on their geographic position. By only requesting data passing through this protocol, the government cannot technically locate you.
The question of the anonymity of future users of StopCovid is more uncertain. “There is a clear direction from the government towards the devices most respectful of the privacy of users, but those who will be sick will have to make themselves known to their doctor at one time or another”, notes Gérôme Billois, who wonders about a possible lifting of the anonymity of the users of the application when they (or their doctor) will have to report themselves as sick to the system.
This cybersecurity specialist is counting on the public availability by the government of all the code used to design the application to dispel fears about it. The Secretary of State for Digital, Cédric O, assured that the State would play the game. Sign that the process is underway, a page (for now almost empty) dedicated to the application has been opened by the government on the specialized site Github, which allows developers to store and share the code they create.
Are we sure that this solution is effective in the context of deconfinement?
Far from it. In order to comply with European regulations on data protection and not give way to suspicion of massive surveillance, the government has already announced that the use of StopCovid will be on a voluntary basis. However, the application needs to be used massively to be an effective tool in the context of the lifting of containment: impossible to be warned that you have encountered a positive case of Covid-19 if it does not use the application. The Singaporean government estimated at the beginning of April that three-quarters of the citizens of the city-state had to use TraceTogether for the program to be effective enough.
Among the obstacles to this massive adoption of the application by all French people is the digital divide. According to government figures, some 13 million people on our territory “use little or no internet, and feel in difficulty with its uses”. However, the first concerned by this “illectronism” are the elderly, who are also the most vulnerable to Covid-19. To overcome this problem, Secretary of State Cédric O said he was working “on various possibilities to help with equipment, or alternatives to smartphones for those who do not have it”.
But wide use of this type of device is not a guarantee of success. In Singapore, where TraceTogether was installed by one in five inhabitants, the authorities had to put in place strict containment measures after noting an increase in the number of contaminations whose origin was impossible to determine.
Finally, StopCovid will be useless if screenings are not massively available when it is released to diagnose suspicious cases, and thus be able to effectively warn other users of the application. It is not yet known whether France will be able to test its inhabitants when the containment is lifted, as Emmanuel Macron guaranteed in his last speech.
When will it be available?
Hard to say. By formalizing the StopCovid project in the columns of World on April 8, Cédric O declared that he did not know “if it will take us three or six weeks” to develop the application. The government has announced that the debate on the subject in Parliament promised by Emmanuel Macron will take place on April 28 in the National Assembly and on April 29 in the Senate, and that it will not be subject to a vote.
Even though its outlines have not yet been officially revealed, this contact tracing program – and the fact that it is being debated without a vote in Parliament – is creaking both left and right, which could slow its exit. “Since when do we debate without a vote on a subject so dangerous for public and individual freedoms? What is the next step, abolish Parliament?” was indignant the national secretary of Europe Ecology-The Greens Julien Bayou. “On such a sensitive subject, each deputy must be able to guarantee public freedoms”, say for their part the boss of the LR group Damien Abad and the deputy Philippe Gosselin, member of the Cnil (National Commission for Data Protection), in a press release.
The project sows discord even in the ranks of the majority: fifteen deputies mainly from its ranks demanded in a forum published by Le Figaro “a social debate on the use of new technologies which are intrusive and which question our fundamental freedoms”.
These concerns are also echoed in civil society. “In the name of the emergency, people are getting used to collecting health data, which can have long-term consequences”, details to franceinfo Guillaume Desgens-Pasanau, former legal director of the Cnil. “It reminds me of the way video surveillance, the use of which was very strictly regulated by law, has taken hold in the landscape thanks to the fight against terrorism.” A feeling shared by the association La Quadrature du Net, which contacted all parliamentarians to alert them to “this vain and dangerous project”.
I was too lazy to read everything and I went to the bottom of the article, can you give me a summary?
In view of the lifting of the confinement on May 11, France is working on the implementation of a contact tracking application called StopCovid. This program should allow people diagnosed with the new coronavirus to report themselves to automatically warn all other users who have been around them, encourage them to confine themselves and to be tested in their turn.
Bluetooth technology, which does not allow geolocation, was chosen to operate StopCovid. However, this protocol was not designed to measure distances, and numerous technical difficulties risk making its reliability questionable. Furthermore, this program can only be truly effective if it is widely used by the population. However, its use will be optional, and the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to the disease, are also the least well equipped in terms of technology.
The project finally met with strong political opposition, from right to left and even into the ranks of the presidential majority. Many voices are raised to denounce a hastily decided project, which could jeopardize our fundamental freedoms.