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France Asks Apple to Relax Bluetooth Privacy Standard for COVID-19 Tracking App Development

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The French government has asked Apple to relax a Bluetooth privacy standard that is hampering the development of a mobile application being designed to track the spread of COVID-19.

So says a new report from Bloomberg, explaining that France has become the first country to call publicly for Apple and Google to weaken privacy protections around digital contact tracing, after its government admitted that its current plans would not work without changes to smartphone operating systems.

The app due to be deployed by May 11, according to the report. However, there are delays due to one of the inbuilt features designed to protect Bluetooth that stops the communications protocol from constantly running in the background when data is being transferred from an iPhone.

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

“The government aims to deploy its app by May 11, which is when France wants to begin to lift restrictions on movement that were imposed in mid-March. Contact-tracing apps are a tool health services can use to more accurately determine who infected people have come into contact with and governments can deploy to help make decisions about how quickly to reopen schools and businesses,” reads the report.

“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.

The criticism comes two weeks after a landmark collaboration between the two companies to build technology enabling digital contact tracing apps, which would track contacts between users in an attempt to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

As well as preventing excess data from being sent back to public health authorities, the forthcoming tools will have other constraints. Apple and Google say they will maintain the ability to disable them on a regional basis once the current crisis is over, and they will refuse to authorise any government which seeks to make installing the apps compulsory.

Their approach was supported on Monday by a letter from nearly 300 privacy experts, who warned that contact tracing apps “can otherwise be repurposed to enable unwarranted discrimination and surveillance.”

“We urge all countries to rely only on systems that are subject to public scrutiny and that are privacy preserving by design (instead of there being an expectation that they will be managed by a trustworthy party), as a means to ensure that the citizen’s data protection rights are upheld,” the letter said.

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