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France and Germany Toss Privacy Concerns Out the Window When It Comes to Contact Tracing

Mathieu Rosemain and Douglas Busvine, reporting for Reuters:

In Europe, most countries have chosen short-range Bluetooth “handshakes” between devices as the best approach, dismissing the alternative of using location data pursued by some countries in Asia as intrusive. But a rift has opened up between countries led by France and Germany that want to hold personal data on a central server, and others that back a decentralized approach in which Bluetooth logs are stored on individual devices.

Apple and Alphabet’s Google, whose operating systems run 99% of smartphones, have promised tweaks in May that would accommodate the decentralized approach. A trial version is due out next week.

I don’t know where Reuters came up with the word “tweaks” here. What Apple and Google are working on is a full-fledged joint project to support privacy-protecting contact tracing. It’s not a tweak to something existing, it’s a new initiative.

That has added a political dimension to the standards-setting debate, with a senior French official saying it was time for Europe to stop caving in to pressure from the United States. “The European states are being completely held hostage by Google and Apple,” said the official, who is involved in coordinating efforts to develop a French contact-tracing app called StopCovid.

They’re not being “held hostage”. If these governments want to make contact tracing apps that store location data on centralized servers (an approach with obvious privacy implications), and which require users to run their apps in the foreground all day long (an approach with obvious battery life implications), they can go ahead and build them. They can’t expect Apple and Google to build support for these techniques into their operating systems, though.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, I get it. But I haven’t seen a good argument against Apple and Google’s project in terms of balancing the benefits of widespread contact tracing with privacy concerns. The European government officials clamoring for Apple and Google to help them build whatever they want, privacy concerns be damned, aren’t making technical arguments.

And the whole thing is a bit rich coming from countries in the EU, which have, until now, held themselves up as the stewards of privacy in the face of the U.S. tech titans.

Friday, 24 April 2020