France, Germany in standoff with Silicon Valley on contact tracing
A standoff between the two largest nations in the European Union and Silicon Valley escalated on Friday as Apple and Google rebuffed demands by France and Germany to back their approach to using smartphone technology to trace coronavirus infections.
Countries are rushing to develop apps to assess the risk that one person can infect another with the coronavirus, helping to isolate those who could spread the COVID-19 disease.
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.
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.
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.”
Dave Burke, vice president for engineering at Google, endorsed the decentralized DP-3T protocol developed by a Swiss-led team of researchers, calling it “the best privacy-preserving solution”.
It was preferable, Burke said, to support a single standard to ensure that national contact tracing apps can talk to each other across borders.