The Battle Between Privacy and Public Health

France is the first European government to ask Apple and Google to ease privacy restrictions on their contact-tracing app, in the hope that they can better curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Will tech be the magic bullet, or is the cost to privacy too high?

Since the coronavirus first emerged months ago, governments and citizens have all wondered: how do we beat it? Short of keeping much of the world isolated until a vaccine is released on a global scale, experts recommend contact tracing. This process involves zeroing in on potentially infected persons, tracing theirs steps to identify those they may have exposed to the virus, notifying said individuals, and quarantining them if necessary.

In a digital age, this process can be eased via technology by tracking individuals and covering any gaps in their own recollections of where they’ve been, with whom, and when. Such an invasive solution raises privacy concerns; detailed data harvesting could easily be sold to those who seek to target users with ever-more-specific ads, used by illiberal governments to track rights activists, or accessed by those with nefarious intentions such as stalkers and hackers.

Some countries have decided to pull the trigger for the sake of public health. In March, Israel utilised their mobile phone networks and the Shin Bet intelligence agency to alert residents via SMS message if they had been potentially exposed to the Covid-19 virus, and advise them to self-isolate. Despite mixed reactions from the populace, many Israeli residents are familiar with ceding privacy and other rights to the government in the name of health and security, with invasive measures being taken in times of war and to combat terrorism.

China has also embraced digital tracking, using QR codes to generate health-based colour coding to allow or bar citizens from entry into stores or public transportation. While not technically compulsory, refusal to use the system can lock people out of entering society.

Trading Freedom for Safety?

In France, privacy is prized. The country has long clashed with American tech giants over levying taxes and respecting privacy laws. Cédric O, who is spearheading the development of the contact tracing app as the junior minister in charge of digital affairs, along with Health Minister Olivier Véran, says wariness of such technological solutions “has to do with French history and a sensitivity to freedom that is inherent to French culture”.

We gave up an absolutely fundamental freedom, that of movement, while most of the Asian countries chose instead to be much more coercive on the individuals”, said Gilles Babinet, Vice President of the French Digital Council, a commission that advises the government.

But the pandemic’s grim reality – in a country that has experienced over 18,000 deaths and is the third-hardest-hit country in Europe – is what has led President Emmanuel Macron to consider similar smartphone apps that alert users if they’ve been potentially exposed – despite the breach of privacy this would entail.

Even so, relying on voluntarily installed smartphone apps like TraceTogether, re-branded as StopCovid, would require a level of civic cooperation that might prove to be a non-starter in France (versus Singapore, where the app was developed). The French version would alert a user’s recent contacts if the user tested positive, but unlike the original, those contacts would not be made available to the government. This means enforcement would be all but impossible, in turn weakening the app’s effectiveness. To be effective, the app would need to be installed by three-quarters of the total populace – an unlikely scenario given French society’s traditional aversion to a loss of privacy.

Now, however, it seems that this cultural apprehension may soon be forced to change. France is the first government in Europe to request that Apple and Google weaken privacy protections around digital contact tracing, to enable user data to be sent to public health authorities while operating in the background of mobile devices. The country wants to deploy the app by May 11, when the lockdown is set to be eased. But if Google and Apple comply, they will be obligated to offer the same relaxation of privacy protocols to any other government, breaching their principles of privacy protection in doing so with no opt-outs.

“We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied [to] our health system”, O said. Meanwhile, the French government has approved the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project, which aims to disrupt the transmission of the coronavirus across the eurozone.

France’s Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, believes such apps are essential in curbing the spread of Covid-19. “Tracking is one of the solutions that have been adopted by a number of countries, so we have decided to work with them in looking at these options”, he said in an interview with France 2 television on April 5. “I am convinced that if [these apps] allow us to fight the virus and if they do not infringe on individual liberties, tracking is a tool that will be accepted by the French people.”

Last week, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also emphasised the need for such tools, saying that “Responsible planning on the ground, wisely balancing the interests of protection of public health with those of the functioning of our societies, needs a solid foundation. That’s why the Commission has drawn up a catalogue of guidelines, criteria and measures that provide a basis for thoughtful action. The strength of Europe lies in its social and economic balance. Together we learn from each other and help our European Union out of this crisis.”

But tech giants and privacy activists do not agree. In addition to blocking the sending of data to authorities, Apple and Google say they will maintain the ability to disable the tools within the app on a regional basis once the current crisis is over, and that they will refuse to authorise any government that seeks to make installing the apps compulsory. This approach was backed by nearly 300 pro-privacy agencies and academics, who wrote a letter in support, warning that contact tracing apps “can otherwise be repurposed to enable unwarranted discrimination and surveillance”.

“We urge all countries to rely only on systems that are subject to public scrutiny and that are privacy preserving by design (instead of there being an expectation that they will be managed by a trustworthy party), as a means to ensure that the citizen’s data protection rights are upheld”, the letter said.

Anne-Sophie Simpere of Amnesty International France noted that any gathering of information in this manner could be used for reprehensible purposes. “Any data collection can be problematic. It’s an area where, à priori, tiny flaws can lead to human rights violations. Once these systems are in place, governments may be tempted to use them for something else. So we need very clear rules from the outset, especially on consent.”

France’s Junior Minister for Digital Affairs Cedric O is one of the individuals spearheading the creation of France’s contact tracing app and believes that public health would benefit from ease privacy laws. “We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system”, said O. Copyright:  Jo Bouroch /

Tensions Across Europe

Opposition parties called for a vote in parliament on the government’s plan this past Monday, so the issue is far from settled. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has responded positively to their request, but also said that a vote is not necessary because the project doesn’t warrant a law at this stage. “Since when do we debate a subject as dangerous to public and private freedoms? What will the next stage be, eliminating the parliament?” asked Julien Bayou, secretary of the EELV Green party, on Twitter earlier this month.

Tension between privacy and protecting public health is playing across Europe. With a lack of coordination, progress on the issue has been patchy. Many of the apps being released do not work as designed, aren’t user-friendly, and push against the guidelines set forth in the European Union’s privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Some governments, like Slovakia, are passing emergency laws to allow the use of individual smartphone data to trace contacts and enforce quarantines – even if they haven’t yet obtained the technology to do so. Slovakia’s former Prime Minister Robert Fico slammed the legislation as a “spying law”. In Germany, a similar proposal was called a “wide-ranging intrusion into civic rights” by Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht of the SPD. Other countries, like Italy, have launched “hackathons”, or brainstorming sessions, where software developers team up to search for new technology solutions. Berlin-based privacy expert Frederike Kaltheuner believes there needs to be clear evidence that tech solutions are worth privacy compromises. “In other words: we need to know that these tools actually work,” said Kaltheuner.

Other initiatives in curbing the virus are more low-tech than many might assume. In India, the government allows the use of indelible ink to stamp the hands of people in quarantine – a variation of the system it uses to prevent citizens from voting more than once in an election. “There’s often a low-tech solution to these problems”, said Edin Omanovic, Advocacy Director at Privacy International, a non-governmental organisation. “With quarantine, sometimes the best thing is just to go and have a look.”

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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