Apple and the French government are reportedly in a standoff.


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The widely touted next step in tackling the coronavirus’ spread is a series of phone apps, known as contact-tracing apps, that are being developed by many governments around the world. But France, which is hoping to release its app in May, says there’s one big obstacle standing in its way: Apple. More specifically, the tech giant’s Bluetooth and privacy policies.

French government ministers have been in talks with Apple over Bluetooth restrictions, but aren’t making progress, Digital Minister Cedric O told Bloomberg in an interview published this week. “We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system,” he said.

The hurdle in question is that Apple doesn’t allow apps to constantly use Bluetooth running in the background if data from that app is going to be removed from the device. It’s a policy put in place to protect the privacy of device owners. But it’s also a central component of many contact-tracing apps, which use Bluetooth to keep track of the people a phone owner has come into contact with.

When asked for comment, a spokesman for Apple pointed to its response to Bloomberg, which it told to refer to its joint effort on contact-tracing apps with Google. Apple and Google together are developing a platform that’ll enable contact-tracing apps to use Bluetooth, but it’s not clear why this isn’t compatible with France’s plans. The Guardian reported last week that the UK’s National Health Service has also been having trouble gaining Apple and Google’s support for its own contact-tracing app project.

The plans of most European countries to build contact-tracing apps pre-date Apple and Google’s announcement. Most are built on the European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing platform, a framework designed to ensure apps meet Europe’s high privacy standards.

Contact tracing is a method of identifying who infected people have interacted with in order to track and slow down the spread of disease. Traditionally this has been a manual process, involving patient interviews. But many countries are now hoping that technology can shoulder this burden if large swaths of their populations can be persuaded to download apps that mimic the manual process and inform individuals if they need to self-isolate.

In Europe, contact-tracing apps are being viewed by leaders as an essential tool for helping to ease lockdown restrictions and allow greater freedom of movement. But privacy concerns and technological restrictions could well hamper the efforts of governments to get their apps out into the world.

French politicians are due to debate its contact-tracing app on April 27, before it’s released in mid-May, when the country is also expected to lift lockdown restrictions that have been in place since March.


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