The best way to move forward from strict lockdowns and social distancing is to have adequate testing for COVID-19. Contact tracing plays an equally important role in stopping the spread once quarantine measures are eased. As such, many countries are turning towards tech-based methods that can automate the process and make it more effective.
France was among the first countries to start developing a COVID-19 contact tracing app. Thanks to that forward thinking, it is now ready to put its work into action. Digital Affairs Minister Cedric O announced that the country’s StopCOVID app will begin real-world testing next week. That’s big news for the future of contact tracing and determining how tech fits into the picture.
In the United States, a massive team-up between Apple and Google is at the forefront of tech-based contact tracing. However, the same can’t be said for France. The country hasn’t received cooperation from tech companies well.
It previously asked Apple to loosen its Bluetooth restrictions to make its own contact tracing app more effective. Under current circumstances, Apple’s iOS doesn’t allow Bluetooth to run in the background if the data it acquires will be taken off the user’s device. In other words, users would need to have the app open on their phone for it to function as intended. Obviously, that isn’t a great solution.
Apple didn’t take kindly to the request to loosen its restrictions. Instead, it tried to point France to the app it is developing with Google as a solution.
Rather than adopting that approach, France decided to go solo. It developed a centralized contact tracing app that stores identifiers for positive individuals in one place. France’s O argues that Apple’s solution is “crippling” to the local health authorities in his country. He notes that it takes control away from the government and makes it more difficult to learn from the information being gathered.
O has called the iPhone version of StopCOVID “satisfactory.” What exactly that means is unknown. He says, “There’s nothing magical about this app, but it’s not technological coquetry either. It’s only useful if it’s integrated into a global health system.”
Although working alone is perhaps a less efficient approach, France is defying the odds. Its contact tracing app will go live on May 11. The country will start analyzing the data that it collects to determine if it is effective.
Despite the fact that France has stood firm in its decision, several other European countries have changed their attitudes in recent weeks. After originally agreeing with France, Germany is now supportive of the app being developed by Apple and Google. A growing number of countries on the continent also support it.
It isn’t hard to see why many of these countries are reversing course. Governments aren’t exactly great at developing high-tech digital infrastructure. A contact tracing app certainly isn’t an easy undertaking. However, for Big Tech firms like Google and Apple, it is a far more doable task.
In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see how governments around the world decide to integrate tech-based contact tracing into their populations.