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Homeland Security

France, Europe Mull Controversial Coronavirus Tracing Apps

By Lisa Bryant April 22, 2020

France's parliament votes next week on plans to use a controversial tracing app to help fight the coronavirus, as the country eyes easing its lockdown next month.

French Digital Affairs Minister Cedric O says the downloadable app would notify smartphone users when they cross people with COVID-19, helping authorities track and reduce the spread of the pandemic.

In a video on the ruling party's Facebook page, O said the so-called "Stop COVID" app will fully respect people's liberties, and will be completely voluntary and anonymous. It also will be temporary – lasting only as long as the pandemic, he added.

The government wants to launch the app on May 11, the date it has set to begin easing a two-month lockdown in the country. It initially announced a parliamentary debate on the technology, but that's been changed to a vote, after major pushback from lawmakers.

The app's critics include ruling party member Guillaume Chiche, who told French TV the app would reveal people's health status and lead to discrimination and exclusion.

He's not the only one worried.

"We think that it is very dangerous for the government to say to French people that the solution will be this kind of application," said Benoit Piedallu, a member of La Quadrature du Net, an advocacy group defending digital rights and freedoms.

The potential problems he sees range from chances the app could infringe on individual liberties, to whether it would actually work effectively.

"We think that the digital application is not the correct answer to this problem," Piedallu said. "The government should buy masks, the government should open new hospitals. … There are a lot of other solutions than an application."

A recent poll showed eight in 10 French respondents said they would be willing to download the app. But Piedallu believes the numbers of those actually using it will likely be much smaller, and many seniors –who are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus – don't have smartphones.

France isn't the only European country working on tracing apps and sparking similar rights debates, including in neighboring Germany. Reports say the French government is also pushing Apple to allow the app to work on its iPhones without built-in privacy measures.

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