A masked woman consults her smartphone in a metro station in Moscow, Russia, March 16, 2020. - Victor Berezkin / AP / SIPA

  • After weeks of hesitation and turnaround, the executive is now seriously considering using an app to track contacts that Covid-19 patients had with other people.
  • A technology similar to that already implemented in Singapore, but which would be done in France only on a voluntary basis, announced this Wednesday the Secretary of State for Digital and the Minister of Health in an interview with Le Monde .
  • Whether based on a bluetooth data sharing technique or whether it is accessible on a voluntary basis, the establishment of a digital tracking strategy remains, according to many actors, a threat to public freedoms.

Will France follow suit in Singapore or South Korea and use surveillance tools to stem the coronavirus epidemic? After procrastination, the government presented this Wednesday the tracks of a "contact tracing" application. “In the fight against the Covid-19, technology can help. We don't want to close any doors, ”says Cédric O in an interview with Le Monde .

The Secretary of State in charge of Digital could say more about this mobile application project based on volunteering, during his hearing before the Law Commission of the Assembly scheduled for Thursday. But the use of new technologies and personal data to stop the Covid-19 already worries many parliamentarians - including within the presidential majority -, researchers and associations. In the name of health, individual and collective freedoms risk, according to them, to be durably restricted.

Bluetooth and volunteering

Since the emergence of the epidemic, many States have looked into the implementation of technological tools for monitoring patients. Some countries, such as China, have developed particularly intrusive digital tracing strategies to control the movement of populations. In France, several institutions have initiated medical assistance work at a distance. This is the case of the AP-HP, in Paris, which developed the “Covidom” application. Designed not to clog Ile-de-France hospitals, this tool allows doctors to follow patients at home who have "mild" symptoms. In parallel, two telephone operators - Orange and SFR - provide anonymized data on their customers to health institutions to verify, in particular, compliance with confinement.

France is considering a “digital strategy for identifying people”. For now, we don't know exactly what it could be, but in the meantime, a panorama of what is being done abroad ⤵️

- Charles-Pierre Astolfi (@charlespierre) March 25, 2020

Rejecting solutions for "controlling" infected people, France is therefore moving towards a solution called "contact tracing" or, in French, "monitoring social interactions". “The idea would be to warn people who have been in contact with a sick person (…). When two people meet for a certain period at a close distance, the mobile phone of one records the references of the other in its history, ”details in Le Monde Cédric O. Inspired by the application“ TraceTogether ”deployed at Singapore, this tool would rely solely on the activation of bluetooth. Led in France by the National Research Institute for Digital Science and Technology (Inria), this project, entitled "Stop Covid", is part of European research, Germany also being interested in development of this tool.

Social pressure and stigma

This track is already raising an uproar within the political class. To reassure, the government insists on the optional nature of this tool, which can be downloaded on a voluntary basis. But in a context of crisis and health emergency, does the concept of volunteering really exist? In a particularly harsh tribune published Tuesday on the website of the Sunday Journal , the majority deputy Sacha Houlié sees it as a “voluntary servitude” fueled by “fear”. "Even with consent, the collection of data for monitoring purposes is condemnable," writes the elected official from Vienne.

To those who would like to convince themselves to give up everything for a little security, who take the pretext of Asian companies,

Observe Singapore, which has just demonstrated the ineffectiveness of tracking and which in turn confines itself.

Tracking, for me, is NO! pic.twitter.com/S1ml86AQyF

- Sacha Houlié (@SachaHoulie) April 7, 2020

A fear shared by the National Consultative Ethics Committee for the Life Sciences and Health. "This individual choice can be guided, even influenced, in various ways, for example through techniques of persuasion or manipulation, social pressure, imitation of the actions of relatives", he warns in a published analysis note Tuesday. "The attribution of responsibility to the person rather than to the community" is a subject of "ethical concern", adds the institution.

La Quadrature du Net, an association defending the rights of citizens on the Internet, warns of a potential social risk. "If these tools develop and the social fabric forces us to accept them, those who refuse them will be considered as outcasts or suspected of not participating in the war effort, since this is the word used by the leader of the State ”, points out Benoît Piedallu, member of LQDN contacted by 20 Minutes. Especially since they could be in the minority. A survey * published on March 31 indicates that eight out of ten French people are in favor of a mobile tracking application to stem the epidemic.

According to Patrice Bourdelais, demographer and historian of epidemics, "there is more reluctance in Western Europe to use these tools compared to certain countries in Asia". But he believes that in the current context, a majority of the population could adhere to this individualized surveillance. "An app presented as having a vital interest can generate wide acceptance, because the population is in a state of amazement", observes at 20 Minutes the research director emeritus at EHESS.

A risk of addiction

Anxious to convince the French, the government ensures that "the data will be anonymous and erased after a given period". "No one will have access to the list of infected people, and it will be impossible to know who infected whom," says Cédric O to Le Monde . Would the fear of a "liberticide" tool then be only a "fantasy", as the secretary of state says? Not really, to believe some detractors, who fear that this temporary surveillance will not take hold. "This app is dangerous because it helps to get people used to being tracked down," says La Quadrature du Net.

In the past, each epidemic has "put in tension individual liberties and collective health security", recalls the historian Patrice Bourdelais. The monitoring tools put in place "have never been abandoned, unless they were replaced by others", he continues. Containment, a mechanism established since the Black Death, was only abandoned with the establishment of the “English system” in the 19th century: a targeted control and quarantine system, established in the ports of goods and passenger entrances.

Unprecedented, the use of new tracking technologies to stem a pandemic could thus become the norm. "This is one of the possible futures, especially since the population already shares their personal data with Google or other Gafa, it has entered our culture," says Patrice Bourdelais. “In the future, I do not imagine that the States will again resort to containment, with a cessation of economic activity for several months. They will have to invent something else. ”

Uncertain effectiveness

Monitored, would citizens be healthier? “There is no evidence that this type of tool will solve the problem. This is what is called technological solutionism: we are trying to solve a political problem with a technological tool ”, denounces Benoît Piedallu. To function, the application envisaged by the executive relies on a sufficient number of users and distributed throughout the territory. However, on this point, the digital precariousness and the lack of equipment of certain categories of population raise questions.

Relying on the application deployed in Singapore to justify the creation of a similar tool in France poses another problem, continues the member of La Quadrature du Net: "It is to hide the fact that they have more beds in their resuscitation services and that they have conducted large-scale screening ”. A strategy that has not prevented this state of Southeast Asia from announcing, on Tuesday, the establishment of containment of its population. Aware of the uncertain nature which weighs on the “StopCovid” project, Cédric O assures that this tool is “only an optional brick in a global deconfinement strategy”.

In the absence of a vaccine, surveillance may appear to be the least bad remedy for the coronavirus. But until when ? "It is difficult to see how humans do not always lag behind the disease," says Patrice Bourdelais. "There will be other viruses, it is an endless battle. "

* Survey commissioned by researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

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  • By the Web
  • Christophe Castaner
  • Covid 19
  • Surveillance
  • Freedom
  • Coronavirus
  • Social media