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France asks Apple to disable iOS security feature for national contact tracing app

French Digital Minister Cedric O.

France is working to release a contact tracing app to monitor the spread of COVID-19, but Apple's built-in iOS security features currently prevent the software from functioning.

As the world scrambles to stamp out the COVID-19 threat, many countries are turning to digital solutions in efforts to track and mitigate fallout from the virus. France, one of the hardest hit both in terms of cases and deaths, is developing a contact tracing app to follow the spread of the disease, but Apple's strict privacy safeguards limit the software's utility on iOS devices.

On iOS, apps that transfer data over Bluetooth are prevented from running in the background. The limitation, designed to protect user data, severely impacts the operating capabilities of contact tracing apps, which typically need to run continuously in order to be effective.

With an aim to release its coronavirus tracking software by May 11, France has asked Apple to make an exception and "lift" the security protocol, reports Bloomberg.

"We're asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system," French Digital Minister Cedric O told the publication.

So far, however, ministers in talks with Apple have yet to see progress on the matter.

When reached for comment, Apple pointed Bloomberg to a previous statement regarding its own contact tracing system that is being developed in partnership with Google.

Announced earlier this month, the Apple-Google program is a cross-platform solution that automates the contact tracing process using short-range Bluetooth signals, secure local databases, anonymized device identifiers and other modern mobile technology. Like other methods in play, Apple and Google's contact tracing initiative seeks to track the spread of a disease by maintaining a history of who an infected person has come into contact with over set a period of time.

"All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world's most pressing problems," the companies said in a joint statement. "Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life."

Apple and Google further detailed the privacy aspects of the contact tracing project last week.

Using anonymized Bluetooth identifiers, which are stored locally, the contact tracing API tracks who a user came into close contact with on what is effectively a rolling 14-day basis. If a participant of the opt-in system later tests positive for the virus, they can elect to upload a list of recent contacts to a central server. User phones periodically download positive broadcast beacons and match data against the locally stored identifiers. If a match is found, an alert is displayed with links to critical healthcare information.

Apple and Google hope to issue a developer API in a "first stage," followed by operating system integration at a future date. The initial API will only be made available to public health organizations, presumably including those in France.

France's Parliament is scheduled to discuss its in-house contact tracing app's future on April 28.