Tech giants, Google and Apple recently announced they would develop a system to alert users if they have come into contact with a person with the coronavirus. Although it is voluntary, opt-in system, it has the potential to monitor a large chunk of the world’s population.
Only days after the landmark agreement to work together to create a system for tracing the Corona virus, one country is already asking the companies to go further in terms of violating privacy of its users. That country, can you guess, is France.
France has become the first country to call publicly to the tech giants to weaken the privacy protection around digital contact tracing. France, lately admitted that its plans will not work without changes to smartphones operating systems.
France’s Digital Minister recently told Bloomberg news,
“We are asking Apple to lift the technical hurdles to allow us to develop a Sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system,”
France aims to release its own app, as soon as May 11th, developed by Inria, the government entity in charge of technological research. Coincidentally, May 11th is when France wants to lift it’s restrictions on movement as well.
How the app usually works,
Once installed, the app will generate a unique, secure USER ID and stores locally on the device. It uses Bluetooth and the device notes down the ID's of other devices that have come to a distance of 2m over the last 21 days.
If the owner of the phone becomes sick, then people they come accross are alerted and asked to quarantine themselves.
This solution is less intrusive than other solutions available as,
1) It doesn't need geolocating.
2) Will not collect data about users health or there contact list.
3) The user ID is encrypted which ensures that data remains anonymous.
What will these new regulations do,
Apple’s OS prevents contact tracing application from using its Bluetooth technology, if they are running constantly, in the background and the data is to be moved off of the device. This is a precautionary measure aimed at protecting users’ privacy.
However, new changes need to allow an app to feed the data to a central server, managed by state health services, which would alert users if they come into contact with a person infected by coronavirus.
For a start, a system that sends a continuous stream of data to a centralized location is inherently less secure and enables real time surveillance on it’s users.
At present, when you use a contact tracing app, it stops tracking once you switch to another app or turn off the phone. With recent changes, the app could have the potential to track, even when the phone is switched off or user is not actively using the contact tracing app. This could essentially turn your smart phone to a surveillance device, 24/7.
These requests will also put Apple and Google in a really tight spot. Why ?
1) When Apple and Google first announced this initiative, they introduced it to be an opt-in program where users can install and use it if they wish to, preserving privacy and integrity of data.
2) This sort of a move will create a precedence where Apple and Google have to follow in other countries. They simply cannot implement it in one country ("A France only OS") and deny the service to another.
France’s Parliament will discuss the app and users will download it on a voluntary basis, at least for the time being. Further details haven’t been made public.
Contact tracing apps are a tool health services can use to more accurately determine and identify clusters while governments can deploy them to help make decisions when to lift restrictions and resume economic activity.
So, there seems to be a huge conflict of interest and can we find a concession ?
Ironically, France is one of the countries wanting to slap higher tariffs against tech giants because they violate user privacy. Now it seems, things are taking another interesting twist.
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