Worldwide, countries are rolling out new smartphone apps. These aren’t games or social media platforms. The software tracks who has the coronavirus—and who’s nearby to catch it. Officials hope these contact-tracing apps will help manage virus flare-ups. But as with most new technology, privacy debates are simmering.
France was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s StopCovid app launched just as the French government started allowing people to return to restaurants, museums, and beaches.
Apps like StopCovid work to notify users or health officials when somebody is exposed to the virus. Under the French system, data upload to government-run servers. Users who test positive receive an alert. The alert allows them to notify anyone who’s been in close contact with them for at least 15 minutes. That lets those individuals monitor their health even before they show signs of infection.
The problem for some French citizens is what kind of app the country uses. France chose to build its own tracking app instead of using a ready-made “decentralized” system (one in which no one server or group manages the data).
Privacy experts prefer decentralized systems because they keep data right on users’ phones instead of sharing it. After all, the fewer places storing information, the harder for data to leak.
The French government claims its app doesn’t track location and deletes user data after 14 days. But civil liberties groups worry that “centralized” tracing apps like StopCovid open the door to more government surveillance and control.
Meanwhile, a group from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is tracking the tracers. The group compiles a list of government contact-tracing apps. So far, MIT has collected 25 different countries’ COVID-19 tracing apps. The group is asking questions about safety and privacy such as:
• Is the app optional or required?
• Does the app collect only the data it needs?
• Are data used only for health purposes?
• Are data stored or deleted?
• Are the app’s design and policies clearly communicated?
Officials and experts say tracing apps can’t prevent the virus. But they can aid contact tracking efforts.
France’s neighbors, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, are all developing apps. China, Finland, Ghana, and India are on the list too. In the United States, early tracing apps faced technical problems. None have been widely downloaded.
The debate over tracing app privacy makes sense to Parisian Sami Mounir. He won’t download StopCovid. “We don’t know what they could do with the data or whether it could be hacked,” Mounir says.
But French waiter Paul Hubert sees “more benefits than risks” with the app. “To me it sounds like wearing a mask in a shop,” says Hubert. “It’s easy and it can help protecting others.”
No one knows whether tracing apps will help or hurt in the long run. But Hubert’s initial response is commendable for seeming to “value others above yourselves”! (Philippians 2:3 NIV)