COVID-19 RECOVERY

Fears for privacy as France links 'health passes' to Covid tracking app

A tablet connects to the French government's TousAntiCovid virus tracking application.
A tablet connects to the French government's TousAntiCovid virus tracking application. AFP - PASCAL GUYOT

France is working to address privacy fears over the linking of its Covid-19 “health pass”, required for large gatherings, to the government’s contact-tracing smartphone app. 

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The health passes are to be hosted on TousAntiCovid, a voluntary app that will soon be expanded to also track coronavirus cases in restaurants, bars and gyms.

Both the passes and the ramped up contact tracing feature will take effect from 9 June, when France further relaxes its coronavirus restrictions.

Digital Affairs Minister Cedric O has warned of sanctions against “unauthorised professionals” who illegally ask to see the passes, which are meant for gatherings of 1,000 people or more – and only under certain circumstances.

“We would quickly be made aware of any abuses, for example from restaurant owners who try to impose it on their customers, even if only through social networks,” O told daily newspaper Le Parisien.

"No venue will be able to limit access outside of the parameters set by the government.”

Digital or paper

Adopted by parliament following intense debate, the health passes will act as proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid, has had a recent negative PCR test, or has sufficient immunity after contracting the virus.

The passes will be accepted in digital form – via a QR code scanned into the TousAntiCovid app – or as paper certificates provided by health authorities. 

The passes will be needed for concerts, festivals, theatre performances, community balls, trade shows and sporting events hosting more than 1,000 people. 

President Emmanuel Macron has promised they will never be used to create divisions within society. 

He says “places of everyday life” – restaurants, museums, cinemas, zoos, libraries and department stores included – may not ask for them. Schools, universities, workplaces and places of worship are also exempt.

A request by resort operator Club Med to use the passes in its French holiday clubs was recently rejected by the government.

App's new feature

To help fend off a summer rebound of the virus, from 9 June France is adding a traceability feature to TousAntiCovid that will alert people who visit restaurants, bars and gyms if they cross paths with a person who later tests positive for Covid.

Businesses will be asked to put up posters of QR codes in their entryways. Customers then, using the TousAntiCovid app, will need to scan the codes before going inside. The date and time of their visit is then recorded.

Despite promises that personal data will be protected, and that QR codes will remain anonymous, there has been pushback from those who worry about too much information being put into the hands of the state.

“I would not want, one thing leading to another, for us to end up in a society where we are traced,” Olivier Faure, of the French Socialist Party, told France Info.

“The almost natural tendency is to collect as much data as possible … but I wouldn’t want to see the state have data that could be used against the people themselves.”

The government has argued that its smartphone app offers a more confidential method for contact tracing than the one used a year ago, when restaurants used notebooks to collect the names and phone numbers of customers.

"TousAntiCovid makes correlations made between the different QR codes, but keeps no location history,” assured O. “All data is erased after 15 days.”

So far 16 million people have downloaded the app, which from the summer will also be compatible with the EU’s digital Covid certificate.

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