French lawmakers were set to vote Wednesday on whether to endorse a contact-tracing app designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus amid sharp debate over privacy concerns.
If approved, France's StopCovid app will be made available to users on a voluntary basis starting Monday. The government committed to honoring the result of the non-binding parliamentary vote.
French privacy watchdog CNIL backed the app this week, stating the technology "won't lead to creating a list of infected people but only a list of contacts using pseudonymous data. It does respect the concept of data protection."
The app uses Bluetooth signals on mobile phones to trace individuals that people infected with the virus had contact with and informs them of potential exposure so they can self-isolate. It will store anonymous data in a government-run centralized database for 14 days before erasing it.
How Contact Tracing Apps work
The government says the app doesn't involve location tracking and it guaranteed the privacy of users, but rights advocacy groups have raised concerns over the issue.
A public agency that monitors the respecting of human rights in France, the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights, said in a statement Tuesday that the app "affects in a disproportionate manner the rights and freedoms of all citizens."
An advocacy group for internet users' rights, La Quadrature du Net, said that "deploying an app whose objectives, technology and usage carry significant risks for our society and our freedoms, for likely mediocre results (possibly even counter-productive ones), is not something we can consider acceptable."
Initially meant to accompany the lifting of restrictions starting on May 11, the app's release was delayed due to technical issues.
The junior minister in charge of the digital economy, Cedric O, said the app was tested on 100 smartphones representing 17 brands and will be available to work with Google and Apple's operating systems.
"It's working well and doesn't drain the battery," he said.
European countries have chosen different approaches to developing their own tracing apps as part of their strategies to prevent a second wave of virus cases after national lockdowns end.
Germany, Italy, Austria, Estonia, Switzerland, and Ireland have embraced a decentralized system, widely considered by privacy experts as better because because data is kept on devices only.
France and the U.K. decided instead to send data to a central server, arguing this would help them react more quickly and aid decision-making.
The French government refused to use the technology for pandemic apps released last week by Google and Apple, saying it lacked sufficient data privacy guarantees.
"The government believes that health protection of the French is an exclusive mission for the state and not for private international actors," it said in a statement.
France, one of the world's hardest-hit countries, has reported at least 28,530 coronavirus-related deaths.