French parliament approves Covid-19 tracker as privacy watchdog gives green light

France's CNIL watchdog said Tuesday the StopCovid app met the legal requirements for privacy protection.
France's CNIL watchdog said Tuesday the StopCovid app met the legal requirements for privacy protection. © Catherine Lai, AFP

French lawmakers on Wednesday approved a government-backed cellphone app that will alert users if they have been in contact with a person infected by the coronavirus.

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The StopCovid app – use of which will remain voluntary – is designed to keep track of users who have been in close proximity over a two-week period. If any become infected, they inform the platform, which alerts the others.

Privacy defenders have expressed fears that the app marks the first step towards a society under constant online surveillance.

But France’s CNIL watchdog, which gave provisional approval for StopCovid in April, said Tuesday that the app met the legal requirements for privacy protection, with ample safeguards to prevent abuse.

It nevertheless made a number of recommendations to make it even safer, including improving the quality of information provided to users, allowing users to object to information shared, and providing an option for erasing stored data.

The app will not rely on geolocation, but instead use Bluetooth technology which allows mobile phones to communicate with each other over short distances.

Now that the French parliament has given its approval, StopCovid could be available in app stores from this weekend.

France started reemerging on May 11 from a two-month lockdown to curb coronavirus spread. Public transport has resumed, though many people are still working from home and most schools have yet to reopen. 

Bars, restaurants and public parks remain shuttered.

The issue of how to track coronavirus spread with mobile technology has sparked privacy concerns in several countries now lifting strict home confinement measures as they hope to kickstart their economies.

As a result of the lockdowns, few people in most countries have been exposed to the virus, and thus do not have immunity and remain at risk of infection, raising fears of a second wave once people start mixing again.

The European Commission has recommended that data harvested through contact-tracing apps be stored only on users' own phones and that it be encrypted.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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