Covid-19 tracing

France's StopCovid app: What is it, how it works and why privacy groups are concerned

Screen grab of new StopCovid smart phone app May 2020
Screen grab of new StopCovid smart phone app May 2020 © StopCovid/Inria

French lawmakers are to vote Wednesday on the deployment of the mobile phone app Stop Covid, which is to be rolled out this weekend.


Although it was given the green light by the national commission in charge of digital technology, it has already come under fire from some ministers and rights groups over privacy concerns. What is it exactly and how does it work ?

In a bid to track the coronavirus epidemic, the French government announced on the 8 April, the development of the StopCovid mobile phone application, designed to alert users who may have been in contact with someone infected by the coronavirus.

It has already been tested since the easing of lockdown measures on 11 May.

The National Assembly (parliament) is to debate and vote on the final project later Wednesday, followed by a final vote by the Senate. If approved, it will be launched on the weekend.

As the country heads towards the second phase of easing lockdown measures, due to be outlined on 2 June, the StopCovid project has prompted the concern of a number of ministers and rights groups in terms of technical and legal loopholes.

To prevent an eventual 'second wave' of the virus, and break the chains of transmission, the government has put in place special 'Covid teams'.

These groups of specially trained people monitor patients infected with the virus, and through a series of questions, manually track down anyone who may have come into contact with the patient, be it family members, colleagues or friends.

The government says the StopCovid app will notably help the Covid brigade and health authorities to identify a wider range of people outside the immediate circle of the patient much faster, for example, anonymous contacts they may have had in a supermarket, or on public transport.

Who will use it and how does it work?

Stop Covid is designed to be used by the general public, providing they have a smartphone with Bluetooth technology.

The 'contact tracing' application is available on Android and iOS systems is free to download, and uses bluetooth rather than geolocalisation to identify nearby users. Its use is not mandatory.

When a telephone identifies a nearby user who has the StopCovid app, thanks to the wireless Bluetooth connection, the user codes are exchanged and stored automatically. They are designed to change regularly so the users remain anonymous.

If a person develops symptoms which are confirmed by a medical test, the lab will give the patient a QR code to record in their phone.

This information is centralised on a server which sends alerts to anyone who has been within one metre of the infected person, for more than 15 minutes, within the last 14 days.

Voluntary use

Experts estimate that in order for it to be efficient, it has to be used by at least 80 percent of the population.

Although it gave the green light in principal on Tuesday, the national commission in charge of digital technology (Cnil) admits that the app raises new questions over privacy laws, and emphasises that it must remain voluntary with no threat of sanctions if not used.

It concluded that as it stands, StopCovid does not provide lists of "sick" people, only anonymous user codes, therefore it does not infringe on any privacy laws.

The Cnil has insisted however on specific measures to ensure that no links can subsequently be established between the codes and the individual users.

Concerns for widespread surveillance

The government agency in charge of developing the application (Inria) is in charge of integrating further modifications proposed by lawmakers on Wednesday.

The app has already received negative reaction from rights groups which accuse it of being a tool for mass surveillance.

A French citizens group called Quadrature du Net read the Cnil report released on Tuesday, and pointed out a number of concerns. One being the presence in the code of an "informer" known as "recaptcha" operated by Google.

Amnesty International France is also concerned and has called for vigilance.

In a press release on Tuesday, the organisation says it is not convinced that such a system would be effective, as no real tests have been done and is concerned it will lead to discrimination.

"The installation of contact tracing means a risk of widespread unauthorised surveillance, which would be a threat to fundamental freedoms," it warned.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app