France Weighs Using Digital Tracking in the Fight Against Coronavirus


PARIS — As France sought clues last month on how to tame the coronavirus, experts looked at one tool that has been central to the strategy of some Asian nations: digital tracking. Citing threats to “individual liberties,” the powerful interior minister dismissed it as alien to “French culture.”

But three weeks — and a tenfold spike in deaths — later, French culture could be changing, along with those of other Western democracies as they struggle to adjust the balance between personal privacy and the public good while attempting to reopen their societies and economies without setting off another wave of coronavirus infections.

In Italy, politicians have proposed blood tests to detect antibodies to the virus before licensing people to leave their lockdowns. President Trump may push for hiring hundreds of people to perform contact tracing as part of his effort to allow Americans to go back to work and school.

And in France, as President Emmanuel Macron extended a nationwide lockdown by at least another month this week, he said his government was considering using a smartphone tracking app that would inform people if they have come in contact with an infected person.

Such steps are particularly fraught in Europe, the continent with the world’s toughest online privacy rules.

The fight against fascism and communism in the 20th century left societies wary of the intrusions of authoritarian power. That is true from Eastern Europe, through Germany and Italy. France, where the nation’s values sprang from revolution against monarchy, is particularly attached to notions of individual rights.

“It has to do with French history and a sensitivity to freedom that is inherent to French culture,” Cédric O, who is spearheading the development of the app as France’s junior minister in charge of digital affairs, said in an interview.

Even so, recent experience in Asia shows that comprehensive tracing of infection chains, along with aggressive testing, has proved critical to fighting the pandemic, which is calling into question a host of Western assumptions, whether the use of digital tracking or the wearing of face masks.

With nearly 18,000 official deaths, France’s toll is surpassed only by that of Italy and Spain, which have also prolonged restrictions on their populations, and the United States. But the authorities are cautiously optimistic that the worst is over.

As the country, like others, struggles to find a way out of a lockdown that is now entering its second month and has kept a population of 67 million confined to their homes and paralyzed its economy, options that once seemed unfathomable have steadily become more palatable.

“We gave up an absolutely fundamental freedom, that of movement, while most of the Asian countries chose instead to be much more coercive on the individuals,” said Gilles Babinet, vice president of the French Digital Council, a commission that advises the French government.

Mr. Babinet said there was more to learn from Asian democracies, like South Korea, whose use of intrusive digital tracking has helped it avoid imposing the kind of strict lockdowns experienced in Europe.

“You must have a device that is both coercive to those infected and as gentle as possible to the others,” Mr. Babinet said.

So far, many Asian governments have handled the crisis by limiting deaths to a fraction of those suffered in the West. In most cases, that was done not by resorting to debilitating nationwide lockdowns, but rather in part by employing digital tracking, a practice embraced even by strong democracies like South Korea and Taiwan.

In Europe, the possibility conjures up images of China’s authoritarian rulers. An app created by the semi-authoritarian government of Singapore, the longtime proponent of Asian values, is the inspiration for versions being developed by the French, Germans and other Europeans.

Those who argue in favor of allowing its intrusiveness say that it is fair to infringe on people who are infected rather than inhibit the freedom of society as a whole.

“We know the patient’s contacts, where the patient goes and stays, and so we don’t need to lock down everybody,” said Ki Mo-ran, an epidemiologist who is advising the South Korean government’s coronavirus response.

Without digital tracking, governments cannot know precisely “which place is contaminated, which place is clean, so they need to lock down,” Ms. Ki said. “Everybody’s freedom is affected. We have to ask ourselves if one person’s privacy is more important than the lives of a family or other people.”

Thanks to multipronged digital tracking — of cellphones, credit card usage and security camera footage — the South Korean authorities are able to closely monitor the movements of infected people. Health officials can then carry out tests on people who are potentially infected. People ordered into self-quarantine are monitored through an app.

Faced with a major outbreak, South Korea, with 52 million people, has managed to limit its official deaths to 230.

The South Korean government can make use of such intrusive tracking — though only during epidemics — because lawmakers changed privacy laws after an outbreak of MERS killed nearly 40 people in 2015.

Back then, health officials practicing traditional contact-tracing found that infected people, including “super spreaders,” often failed to reveal all of the people with whom they had been in touch, or patients were too sick to be interviewed, Ms. Ki said.

Weakening privacy laws was a consequential step for South Korea, where people in their 50s and older remember snatching democracy from the country’s military rulers in 1987.

They included people like Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul who was a student activist during the democratization era. He has come to regard Western liberal democracies, with their overriding emphasis on “personal liberty and privacy,” as being ill-equipped to respond to situations like terrorism or epidemics.

“In these kinds of emergency situations, we need to adapt,” Mr. Ahn said.

Early instances in which a large amount of personal information was released raised fears of a government overreach. But in what was regarded as a referendum on the handling of the crisis, voters handed South Korea’s governing party a landslide victory in parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

“If you look at Korea compared with Europe or the United States, the critical difference seems to be tracking and testing,” said Kim Seok-hyeon, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Seoul. “In the West, they will have to think more about those measures.”

But for some French, the idea of giving up personal liberties is a non-starter.

While tracking technology has been used by Asian democracies, they are “democracies where the rule of law is not as strong as it is here,” said Gaspard Koenig, a philosopher who has written about the relationship between technology and freedom, including in Asia.

When Mr. Macron said that France’s lockdown would be extended until May 11, he immediately framed the debate that lawmakers are expected to have on tracking technology.

“This epidemic cannot weaken our democracy, nor impinge on liberties,” he said.

Mr. O, the official leading the development of France’s technology, said that after studying the tracking technology used in Asia, France had settled on the least intrusive form — the Singaporean app, called “TraceTogether.”

But there are concerns that the app, relying mainly on a sense of civic duty, will be so watered down in France that it will prove ineffective.

The app — called “StopCovid” in France — would be installed voluntarily on people’s smartphones, would not track their locations or movements, and would use only Bluetooth technology to help trace a person’s recent contacts.

If users tested positive for the coronavirus and indicate their status on the app, their recent contacts would be automatically alerted, and it would be up to them to take the appropriate steps by getting tested, seeking treatment or self-quarantining.

The French version would be different from Singapore’s in at least one fundamental way, Mr. O said. In France, the list of recent contacts would never be made available to the government.

“To be honest, people are asking whether it’s enough and whether we need to take it up a notch,” Mr. Babinet said.

Mr. O acknowledged that one of his main worries was whether enough people in France would install the app on their smartphones to work as a broad contact-tracing tool. The French, he said, are “by nature cautious toward technology and even progress,” especially compared with Asians.

Even in Singapore, only about 20 percent of people have downloaded the app, and the authorities recently introduced stricter confinement measures to curb a jump in infections. Singapore — which has officially suffered only 10 deaths out of a population of 5.6 million — has said that three-quarters of the population needs to use the app in order for it to be effective.

Despite being a weakened version of the least intrusive tracking technology used in Asia, the app has already drawn fierce opposition from Mr. Macron’s party in Parliament, La République En Marche.

Sacha Houlié, a lawmaker, said that using the app would signify a “profound cultural shift” in France.

“We are France,” Mr. Houlié said. “In terms of civil liberties, being France means something. It means that, in a sense, the world is watching what we do.”

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