Apple restrictions block France’s contact-tracing iPhone app

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France is calling on Apple to loosen its Bluetooth restrictions on iPhone that are said to be holding back a government contact-tracing app designed to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Apple currently prevents iOS apps from using Bluetooth connectivity in the background under certain circumstances. Its policy blocks France from moving forward with its app, a Tuesday report reveals.

Apple famously imposes tight restrictions on third-party iPhone and iPad apps. They’re there to protect user privacy and security, the company says, but in certain circumstances, they restrict functionality.

That’s never been more of a problem than it is today, with potentially lifesaving software unable to run on iPhone because key features are simply not permitted by Apple’s app development guidelines.

France asks Apple to change Bluetooth policy

“We’re asking Apple to life the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied to our health system,” France’s digital minister, Cedric O, told Bloomberg.

France wants to begin rolling out its contact-tracing app on May 11, which is the date it plans to ease restrictions on movement. The app will allow it to determine who infected people have had contact with.

With this information, governments can make more informed decisions about how to reopen schools and businesses as quickly and as safely as possible. These things are key to a return to normal life.

An Apple spokesperson pointed Bloomberg toward the company’s new partnership with Google, which plans to enable contact-tracing apps that rely on Bluetooth connectivity.

The new platform, which is scheduled to debut next month, will be available to governments and health authorities around the world. It will ship with a focus on protecting user privacy.

Protecting our privacy

That focus, however, could be a problem for France.

France and the European Union want a system that allows data to be fed to a central server. This would allow citizens to be notified when they come into contact with someone infected by COVID-19.

Apple’s new system doesn’t allow that; it permits data to be stored only on a user’s handset, minimizing the possibility that it could make its way into the wrong hands. Experts endorse this approach.

Allowing data to be sent elsewhere would “catastrophically hamper trust in and acceptance of such an application by society at large,” read a letter from 300 academics, published on Monday.

“It is vital that, in coming out of the current crisis, we do not create a tool that enables large scale data collection on the population, either now or at a later time.”

What now for France?

It’s unclear what this means for France and its contact-tracing app, which is intended to be used on a voluntary basis. Its parliament will meet for further discussions on April 28.

“While the government hasn’t responded, the French privacy watchdog will review the plan for the tracking app this week,” added Bloomberg.