Privacy: Apple won’t support invasive French, German contact tracing

A standoff over contact tracing privacy between Germany and France, the two largest nations in the European Union, and Silicon Valley escalated on Friday as Apple and Google rebuffed demands by the countries to back their approach to using smartphone technology to contact-trace coronavirus infections.

Here’s an illustration of how the Apple – Google coronavirus contact tracing is proposed to work:
UK NHS coronavirus tracing. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool
Apple Google COVID. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool

Mathieu Rosemain and Douglas Busvine for Reuters:

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…

Although Bluetooth-based smartphone contact tracing is an untested technology and early results in countries like Singapore are modest, its development is already redefining the relationship between the state and individual.

Reversing a debate that normally pits privacy-conscious Europeans against a data-hungry U.S.-tech industry, it is Apple that has refused to allow Bluetooth monitoring of other devices to run in the background on its iPhones. Such monitoring would open the way to greater state surveillance, say privacy experts.

That creates a problem for France and Germany as now, for their apps to work, a phone would need to be unlocked and have Bluetooth running in the foreground – a drain on the battery and an inconvenience for the user.

Senior executives from Apple and Google said on Friday that they had jointly designed tools with the express goal of supporting decentralized contact-tracing apps they say provide the best privacy protection to users.

“Those privacy principles are not going to change,” Gary Davis, Apple’s global director of privacy and law enforcement requests, told a webinar hosted by the liberal Renew faction in the European Parliament.

“They are fundamental minimum privacy principles that are needed to make this work.”

MacDailyNews Take: It’s not going to work anyway, but at least let’s attempt to preserve privacy while we hand out contact-tracing apps like pacifiers.

We know Apple and Google, like most everyone else, want to “do something,” but even Singapore, where people follow the rules, has a COVID-19 contact-tracing app which has been installed by just 12% of the population). That’s at least 48% short of the lowest threshold for “digital herd immunity.” In Singapore, no less.

No matter how well-designed the system is on paper, in practice too few people will install and use it*, while reliance on Bluetooth connectivity (range, materials penetrance, public transport, etc.) will result in myriad false positive issues.

This seems like something designed to provide a digital security blanket to help increase confidence for going back to work more than anything else.

*In the U.S., beyond the obvious constitutional rights issues, 18% of the U.S. population, or nearly 1-in-5 people, do not even have a smartphone. So, with one of every 5th person roaming about by default, not to mention all of the opt-outs, contact-tracing via iOS and Android smartphones would be more of a feel-good security blanket than a useful, working system. Contact-tracing apps are nothing more than pablum for the masses.

More about the myriad issues of Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing apps can be found in our Takes here and here.


  1. On Tuesday, I received a text message from the CDC warning me that I had recently been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. The message asked me to wear a mask if out in public, measure and record my temperature twice a day, record my movements, and to call a special number if I experienced any unexplained changes in my health. I can also go online to see an interactive map of nearby locations where confirmed cases have been and when they were there.

    Initially, it was very unsettling; the possibility of exposure, not the invasion of privacy. I doubt I was exposed, but I will be very vigilant in the coming days.

    We had only one covid-19 case today in the entire country. We must all work hard and take care to protect ourselves and loved ones; this takes constant vigilance. We cooperate with each other and our government.

    Our medical professionals, government and neighbors remember the painful sting of death from the SARS epidemic in 2002/3. I am from Taiwan. We wish our friends in the United States and elsewhere safety and health!

  2. A better idea could be, instead of using an app, to provide a personal device specific for this problem.
    It should use NFC for tracing close contacts with others wearing it, display 3 of lights for three states:

    Green: the person has not come in close contact with a suspect Covid19 patient, or she had it and now she tests negative.

    Yellow: the person has maybe gotten in close contact with a Covid19 patient and has to test or is waiting a test result.

    Red: the person is in quarantine cause she has tested positive to Covid19.

    Those wearables might as well also monitor some vitals, should connect to a centralized server at least 3 times per day (for updates) or it will not go green but stay yellow for green codes (of course stay yellow for yellow codes and stay red for quarantined).

    Perhaps it should also have a way to be associated to the wearer in case the police should check if the person is really wearing hers or what.

    That’s it. You wanna get in close contact? Let’s check that out… no freaking geo localization, no possibility to have something alien on another personal device as a smartphone where very sensitive data of are stored.

    This should be done on small scale where an outbreak resurge (towns, neighborhoods, etc) and for a limited amount of time (40 days, the quarantine time).
    Later it could be used for people traveling between areas of the same country, and in another phase for people traveling outside of their country, re-purposing them in case mandatory self isolation will be needed (a week or so).
    Just think about what was done wrong in the beginning: people moving from places with an active outbreak didn’t self isolate when back at their country/regions for example.

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