Covid rules rebooted as France embraces QR codes
France has entered a matrix of sorts, with QR codes becoming the new normal as the country shakes off its coronavirus shackles. Already used as proof of vaccination, the pixelated square barcodes now adorn restaurant tables, and the doorways of bars and gyms, forming a digital contact tracking system that authorities say is needed to stay ahead of the pandemic. Opponents say they’ve gone too far and threaten privacy.
As old rules give way to new ones, the government has sought to simplify things by directing people to its one-stop smartphone app: TousAntiCovid.
As well as hosting a contact tracking tool in operation since May 2020, TousAntiCovid now provides a home for France’s much-debated “health pass” – digital proof that a person has been vaccinated, recently tested negative for Covid, or has sufficient antibody immunity.
A valid pass is required for entry into events of more than 1,000 people.
The government says the QR technology, offers guaranteed anonymity, using an encrypted identifier that contains no personal information.
“You will not be traced or identified, but only informed," the Economy Ministry promised, adding that a phone’s GPS system isn’t used to map movements, either.
The assurances have done little to win over French digital rights group Quadrature du Net, which warned the data contained on the app is vulnerable to attack.
“It’s fairly easy to breach the pseudonym that is used in the contact tracing system,” Quadrature du Net member Bastien Le Querrec told RFI, adding that attacks have already been documented.
“While TousAntiCovid issues an identifier that changes after a certain period … these identifiers are linked to one that never changes: the identifier of the phone's peripheral that emits this signal.”
The health passes, Le Querrec adds, pose problems of their own despite getting the tick of approval from France’s data protection authority, the CNIL, because they demand “too much” information.
"It is very likely the government is acting illegally by issuing its health passes because they contain much more information than the law allows."
A voluntary necessity
The use of TousAntiCovid, intended as a temporary measure to navigate the pandemic, is voluntary.
To enter restaurants, customers can scan QR codes with the app to provide contact details, or they can write their details in a hard copy notebook. Concert-goers can still show a printed copy of their health pass, which has its own unique QR code.
However, moves to make the app “indispensable” for those wanting to make the most of their newfound freedoms has drawn the ire of Quadrature du Net, which argues that people who do not download it will be penalised.
“TousAntiCovid is being aggressively pushed by the government as an essential tool in the lives of French people,” Le Querrec says.
“By giving it more and more functionality, the government is making TousAntiCovid a ‘must-have’.
“By now it’s clear that French people know the importance of protecting themselves, and of getting vaccinated. There is no need to go through all these manoeuvres that will intrinsically reduce the right to privacy.”
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