France’s Covid-19 contact tracing app will not be included in a co-ordinated EU exercise of cross-border information sharing after Paris snubbed a standard created by Apple and Google that has been taken up by most European member states.
In an attempt to make sure countries’ apps can access information about coronavirus cases across the bloc, the European Commission last month agreed a deal with German companies SAP and T-Systems, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, to develop a “gateway” system that will enable national tracing apps to be interoperable across borders.
But the software is designed only for apps that use technologies offered by Google and Apple, excluding France and Hungary, the two EU member states who have opted for an alternative technology approach known as a “centralised model”.
This approach gives national health authorities more leeway and access to the data and has been praised by healthcare experts, but has raised concerns among privacy advocates and some tech experts.
Although uptake has been slow so far, contact-tracing apps could play a role in tracking infections across borders as travel resumes in the summer months and Covid-19 cases rise across Europe.
Excluding France is problematic as it is among the most visited countries in the world, and has a large tourism sector. Covid-19 infections have been rising in the country in the past month, and have averaged around 1,200 per day over the past seven days, according to government data.
Johannes Bahrke, a spokesman for the European Commission, said the gateway was expected to be completed by SAP and T-Systems “within eight weeks”.
One EU official said it was “not impossible” that France could be included in Brussels co-ordination exercise, but the technical difficulties meant that it could “not be developed overnight”.
As it stands, 18 of the EU’s 27 member states have committed to developing apps which use Google and Apple’s “peer-to-peer” approach where information about who a person is in contact with is stored on smartphones rather than on a central server. Nine countries — including Germany, Italy, Poland, and Denmark — have already rolled out their apps.
Brussels’ planned “gateway” is designed to ensure that member states’ apps can share information about people who have tested positive and are travelling to other parts of the bloc. It will work by connecting national apps to a server in Luxembourg which would then distribute the anonymised data to the relevant member states.
France’s “StopCovid” app was launched in June and works by using Bluetooth to log contacts when people stand less than one metre from each other for 15 minutes or more. If a positive Covid-19 case is recorded by the app, people who have been in contact with the anonymised person are sent a warning.
Cédric O, France’s minister for the digital economy, has acknowledged that information sharing with the Google-Apple based apps would be difficult. But France defended its tech choice as better for its fight against the virus and key to its national sovereignty.
“We do not regret our choice to opt for a centralised model,” a French official said, adding that the country remained open to working with the EU on alternative solutions.
“We are worried about the dependence of Europe on closed technology systems from the US.”