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French friction over government's COVID-tracing app project

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s state-supported “StopCovid” contact-tracing app project is creating friction between government and parliament amid preparations to debate the issue before the app is ready.

FILE PHOTO: A woman checks her mobile phone amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Madrid, Spain, April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

The planned smartphone app would warn users if they come into contact with anyone infected with the coronavirus to help to contain the epidemic as France looks to emerge from lockdown.

The project mirrors others around the world, including Italy, which on Friday said that it is poised to start testing its app on a regional basis.

The proposed French solution, however, will not be ready before parliament debates the subject on April 28-29, digital affairs minister Cedric O said.

For all the espoused benefits of such apps, the issue has proved somewhat divisive in Europe, with deep misgivings expressed over the potential for data abuse and privacy violations.

The French government has provided little technical detail on its project, which will be based on a proximity-tracking Bluetooth app that users would install on their mobile phones voluntarily.

A debate is scheduled in France’s National Assembly over April 28-29, but no formal vote is planned.

“This app won’t be finalised by April 28-29,” junior minister O, a staunch defender of the tracing app, said in a video conference hearing with French lawmakers.

He added that the app may not even be ready by May 11, when President Emmanuel Macron plans to begin lifting the country’s lockdown. Macron said lawmakers would have to hold a debate before May 11, the lockdown’s tentative end-date.

Macron loyalist Sacha Houlie, meanwhile, is against the app. The lawmaker, one of Macron’s earliest backers, says he doubts it would be efficient and fears it would acclimatise the public to undemocratic state surveillance.

“I think that any decision to deploy a tracing app without holding a vote, although legal, would lack any democratic legitimacy,” he told Reuters, adding that the government’s failure to name the companies developing the app on its behalf lacked transparency.

However, another MP in Macron’s party, Eric Bothorel, is a staunch supporter of the project.

“There’s no data collection, there’s no tracking. It’s neither the American Wild West nor the Chinese Big Brother,” he said.

Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain and Michel Rose; Editing by David Goodman

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