France threatens Apple in standoff over COVID-19 contract-tracing privacy

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Any of the new iPhones can handle the worst rainstorm.
France plans to go it alone on COVID-19 contact tracing for mobile phones.
Photo: Apple

A French official accused Apple on Tuesday of hampering the effectiveness of the country’s COVID-19 contract-tracing platform by blocking access to data via Bluetooth.

France minister for digital technology Cedric O told BFM Business TV that Apple “could have helped us make the application work even better on the iPhone. They have not wished to do so.”

“We are having discussions,” O said, as reported by Reuters. “There is indeed the solution proposed by Apple and Google, which in our opinion poses a certain number of problems in terms of protection of privacy and in terms of interconnection with the health system and control of Health system. It is for this – not because Apple and Google are big bad wolves – for these problems, that we refused to go through with their solution.”

Instead, France will come up with “a solution that works on all phones,” the official said.

“I think it is regrettable that in a moment … when everyone is mobilized to fight against the epidemic, that a big company … does not help a government to fight against the crisis,” O said. “It will be necessary to remember it when the time comes.”

A spokesman for Apple in France declined to comment.

cedric.o.contract.tracing
French minister Cedric O: ” … a large company that is doing so well economically is not helping out a government in this crisis … We will remember that when the time comes.”
Photo: BMTV

France standoff with Apple & Google

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Apple had “dug in its heels in a standoff with the French government over the merits of protecting users’ privacy versus giving the state access to information in efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19.”

According to the report, France seems to have requested that Apple modify its privacy and security settings. Cupertino apparently refused to budge. In the last 24 hours, France decided to move forward with its own StopCOVID app, which will use centralized data. The United Kingdom is taking a similar approach.

Apps that use a centralized system of storing user data are not supported by Apple and Google. Both companies explained that such a strategy would make a contract-tracing app less powerful and secure.

O previously said the French government has “the freedom … to be able to have the choice and not be constrained by the choices of a large company, however innovative and efficient it may be.”

The French government is due to vote on the use of the app later this month. Lawmakers and privacy advocates are worried about whether the use of user location data and contacts constitute a privacy violation. Issues like these likely will be addressed later this month, as a vote on use of the app is considered by the French legislature.