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StopCovid phone app

French app StopCovid still facing hurdles amid EU concerns about data access

The interface for the StopCovid mobile phone app, designed by the French government to manage the number of coronavirus infections, rolled out on 2 June, 2020
The interface for the StopCovid mobile phone app, designed by the French government to manage the number of coronavirus infections, rolled out on 2 June, 2020 AFP

Since it was rolled out on 2 June, the StopCovid phone app, used to trace coronavirus infections has been downloaded 1.7 million times in France, representing approximately 2 percent of the population. The EU is concerned the way data is stored will be incompatible with other systems across the bloc, while closer to home, the issue of cost has been raised.

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It has been a slow start for the StopCovid tracing app launched by the French government two weeks ago, in an effort to curb any further spread of the coronavirus. This as the country leans in to phase three of easing lockdown measures.

Although it has registered 1.7 million downloads so far, 600,000 in the first 24 hours, the number has dwindled since.

Branded as an infringement on privacy by some politicians and rights groups, StopCovid has been the subject of many debates among lawmakers since its initial proposal in April.

According to the investigative news website Mediapart, more data was being collected from mobile phones than originally specified in the brief.

The app is designed to collect only information from nearby users who were within a one metre distance for at least 15 minutes.

Gaëtan Leurent, one of the researchers associated with the project, run by the government digital development agency Inria, admitted that the amount of data collected was in fact much more than originally proposed.

The National data protection agency (CNIL) on 4 June, said they were looking in to the issue, and said that systems had been set up to monitor the app.

Low download rate

Furthermore, some critics have pointed to the fact that unless a high percent of the population signs up to the voluntary app, its reach will not be efficient in tracing the virus.

With only 2 percent of the population downloading and activating the app, it appears the French public have not openly adopted the measure.

This contrasts with users in Australia for example – where the CovidSafe app was downloaded by 8 percent of the population.

The Norwegian app, Smittestopp (Infection Stop) launched three weeks before the French one, was initially used by 11 percent of the population, or one quarter.

However, the app has recently been withdrawn following a formal recommendation from Norway's data agency over privacy concerns.

France's Digital affairs minister Cédric O, in charge of the project admitted that, "seeing how the epidemic has weakened, the utility of the app is relative."

He said it was also too early to judge the success of the app, which was co-developed by the government agency Inria, and supported by several French companies such as Orange, CapGemini and Dassault Systems.

Incompatible with EU systems

Futhermore, the vice president of the European Commission said on Tuesday that the French app is not compatible with other apps used in the EU, due to the way data is stored.

Margrethe Vestager explained the problem of incompatibility of the systems to members of the National Assembly during an open session on Tuesday.

The EU hopes to be able to compile tracing data across borders in order to map any development of the virus and to implement health measures accordingly.

It is also to reassure visitors, in order to boost the coming tourism season, seen as vital to economic recovery.

At this stage, France uses Bluetooth technology linked to a centralised data system, where as Germany, Italy and other member states have opted for Bluetooth data which is only exchanged between mobile phones and is not centralised.

"It is a delicate operation to set set up technical norms between centralised and decentralised systems," Vestager told law-makers.

High maintenance cost

In terms of the cost, since the launch, the app is estimated to cost the government some 100,000 euros per month.

"Health has no price," Cedric O said in an interview with the Nouvel Obs on 27 May.

"The sum is negligible compared to what medical bills from intensive care would cost."

The fees go towards the maintenance and hosting in a server run by 3DS Outscale, a subsidiary of the Dassault group, according to the finance ministry.

The anti-corruption NGO Anticor has warned that there may be an unfair playing field, with a "risk of saturation" due to the absence of a public market for this kind of app.

The organisation has filed a complaint with a Paris financial court over the cost of the app.

"Developed for free, StopCovid will now cost the government more than 200,000 euros in hosting fees. A sum which is much higher than the current market rate. We have therefore filed a complaint,"  the message read on Twitter.

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