Berlin decided on Sunday that there would be no central processing of the data collected by the Covid-19 tracking application. A flip-flop that proves the many detractors of this approach and leaves France alone on the European scene with its “Stop Covid”
France increasingly isolated in Europe with its “Stop Covid” app. Germany made a 180-degree turn on its own contact tracking solution on Sunday, April 26, abandoning the principle of a single authority which would centralize all the data collected.
Berlin, along with Paris, was one of the few European capitals to advocate centralized processing of the data collected by these future smartphone applications, supposed to alert their owner when they come into contact with an individual contaminated by Covid-19. But the German government confirmed this weekend that it had finally decided to opt for a “decidedly decentralized approach” after having preached the other way two days earlier.
“Big brother” or not “Big brother”
This is a crucial turnaround capable of satisfying the defenders of the protection of personal data. In the French approach, the application generates an “anonymized” report for each “contact” – detected using Bluetooth technology – with another smartphone on which “Stop Covid” is installed, and sends this information to a server central managed by a “trusted” public body. It is by crossing the data on this large file that it is possible to establish which smartphone was within the Bluetooth range of that of an individual tested positive for Covid-19, and thus send the alerts if necessary.
The decentralized approach bypasses this “Big Brother” which stores all the information. “The data is stored locally on the phone of the users of the application,” said France 24 Henning Tillmann, co-chair of the German Center for Digital Progress D64, an association who campaigned against the adoption by Berlin of a centralized system. When an individual learns that he has been contaminated by Covid-19 “he could, for example, scan a QR code on a document given by the Ministry of Health, which will be recognized by the application”, specifies Henning Tillmann . A message can then be sent to all smartphone holders, who have been near the carrier of the virus long enough.
The debates that led to the German about-face closely resemble the controversies surrounding the development of “Stop Covid” in France. At the outset, Berlin swore by a centralized system. It provided the advantage of providing an overview of the evolution of the virus on the national territory. Also, as this app rested on a protocol developed at European level, supposed to be the technical foundation for all similar applications developed in other countries of the Old Continent, this “would have made it possible to pool information on the epidemic at European level”, explains Frans Imbert Vier, CEO of Ubcom, agency of data protection specialist, contacted by France 24.
Google and Apple: too many obstacles
This system quickly attracted criticism from part of the scientific community and from associations which, like the German Center for Digital Progress D64, fear that individual freedoms will be unnecessarily sacrificed on the altar of the emergency. sanitary. Several hundred European scientists and activists published last week, an open letter warning of the potential deviations from the approach advocated by the German government.
A server centralizing such sensitive data “must be particularly well protected against possible computer attacks and it must be able to guard against the temptation to exploit this information for purposes other than those provided by law”, stressed the detractors of the German application project. “I do not believe in the myth of fully anonymized data, and such a database that could in theory make it possible to trace all the movements of a part of the population poses serious questions in terms of surveillance and possible abuse”, summarizes Frans Imbert Vier, who believes that the reproaches addressed to the German project are also valid for his French cousin “Stop Covid”.
But it was not these critics who ultimately got the better of Berlin’s determination. The German government has also faced the refusal of Google and Apple to let such an application run continuously in the background on their smartphones. The app stores of these Internet giants prohibit a third party application from continuously collecting personal data. Apple also opposes it for a practical reason: the obligation to always have the Bluetooth turned on will considerably reduce the autonomy of the phone.
By insisting, the German government would have put on the market an unusable solution on smartphones running Android (Google) and iPhones … the vast majority of phones in circulation. “It was technically unimaginable because for this application to be useful it must be widely used on the territory”, underlines Henning Tillmann.
Berlin therefore resolved to wait for Google and Apple to launch their own contact tracking platform, which is scheduled for early May. “Please note that these are not applications developed by American groups, but simply the protocol allowing States to create their own decentralized solution”, specifies Henning Tillmann. So it’s not about surrendering sovereignty to the American giants of the Internet.
The German retreat risks embarrassing the French government as it prepares to submit the “Stop Covid” application to Parliament tomorrow Tuesday, April 28. No doubt the opposition will ask the executive why it is bothering where Germany has decided to change its tune. There is furthermore no reason for Apple or Google to concede in Paris what they have refused in Berlin. And, for Frans Imber Vier, “if only one in five French people can use this application because it will not work on the most popular smartphones, we are in the process of submitting an application to Parliament. ‘very questionable techno-sanitary utility ”.