France has urged Apple to ease its Bluetooth restrictions, which the country says is hindering the development of StopCovid — a government contact-tracing app — Bloomberg reports. The country’s Digital Minister, Cedric O told Bloomberg that France is “asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system”; however, there has been no progress in those discussions. France is among the most badly hit nations by the coronavirus, with over 157,000 confirmed cases according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
On iOS, apps that transfer data over Bluetooth are prevented from running constantly in the background. This requirement restricts the effectiveness of contact tracing apps since they need to exchange packets of data over Bluetooth and run constantly in the background while doing so. Apple’s current Bluetooth policy restricts that, which is why France is asking the company to dilute it, according to Bloomberg. France is aiming to launch its contact tracing app by May 11, per Bloomberg, and it will be showcased in the country’s Parliament on April 28. The app has been developed by the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (Inria), a government research institute.
France has also developed a protocol for its contact-tracing app, called ROBERT (robust and privacy-preserving proximity tracing protocol). The protocol — documents for which were published on GitHub — says that “although it might seem attractive in term of privacy to adopt a fully decentralized solution, such approaches face important challenges in term of security and robustness against malicious users”. The BBC reported that the protocol is not as privacy protecting as France would have us believe, since it “does preserve privacy between users but not between the user and the government”.
Apple and Google are building a contact-tracing system: Cedric O’s comments comes after Apple and Google, in an unprecedented move, announced developing an opt-in contact-tracing system based on Bluetooth technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. The companies will initially develop APIs to ensure interoperability between contact-tracing apps developed by public health authorities, and subsequently will embed contact-tracing capability in both iOS and Android. The two companies have said that the APIs will be launched in mid-May, and the OS support will come in the “coming months”.
Apple, last week, said that the data collected by the system will not be processed centrally, and will be “relayed” through servers run by the health organisations across the world. The two companies are relying on this decentralisation to make it difficult for governments to conduct surveillance. The protocol that France is developing bats for centralisation, instead of decentralisation, and hence, goes against what Apple and Google are proposing.
Scholars call for privacy-preserving contact tracing apps: Last week, over 400 scientists and researchers from across the world, said that Apple and Google’s contact-tracing solution is a good move since it does not collect private information on users. They decried attempts to pressurise the companies to open up their systems so that they can capture more data. They also said that contact tracing apps should be voluntary, have purpose limitation, and data minimisation, among other things.
EU demands transparency on contact tracing apps: Before that, the European Union had passed a resolution which places similar conditions on contact-tracing apps, including that data collected by these apps should not be stored centrally, and the apps should abide by principles of data protection by design and data minimisation, among other things. The EU has also reportedly said that it will scrutinise Apple and Google’s contact-tracing solution.