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France accuses Apple of refusing help with ‘StopCovid’ app

A member of the medical staff sends a message on her mobile phone during a break as she works in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients at the Clinique de l’Estree private hospital. Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

France accused Apple APPL.O on Tuesday of undermining its effort to fight the coronavirus by refusing to help make its iPhones more compatible with a planned “StopCovid” contact-tracing app.

Countries are rushing to develop smartphone apps, which are seen as a way to help keep the novel coronavirus epidemic in check while reopening the economy.

The apps would use the Bluetooth feature that allows phones to interact with nearby devices to help detect when users come into contact with people who potentially carry the virus.

Apple’s iPhones normally block access to Bluetooth unless the user is actively running an app. French officials want Apple to change the settings to let their app access Bluetooth in the background, so it is always on. So far, they say, Apple has refused.

“Apple could have helped us make the application work even better on the iPhone. They have not wished to do so,” France’s minister for digital technology, Cedric O, told BFM Business TV.

“I regret this, given that we are in a period where everyone is mobilised to fight against the epidemic, and given that a large company that is doing so well economically is not helping out a government in this crisis.”

“We will remember that when time comes,” the minister added.

A spokesman for Apple in France declined to comment.

The issue of Bluetooth access on iPhones is one of several security-related questions that have arisen as countries try to roll out smartphone apps to fight the coronavirus.

France, along with some other countries, wants to keep contact data in a central database, arguing this would make it easier for the authorities to track suspected coronavirus cases.

Apple and Alphabet’s (GOOGL.O) Google, between them responsible for the operating systems on nearly all smartphones, want data to be stored on the phones themselves, out of government reach, saying this would better protect the privacy of users.

O, the French minister, said he could not explain the reasoning behind Apple’s decision on Bluetooth.

“We consider that oversight of the healthcare system, fighting the coronavirus, is a matter for governments and not necessarily for big American companies,” he said.

The French minister said the app should be ready to be deployed on June 2 regardless of Apple’s stance, and would enter a testing phase in the week of May 11 when the country starts to unwind its lockdown.

In France, Apple’s mobile operating system accounted for 21.1% of the market in the first quarter, while Google’s Android accounted for 78.8%, according to Kantar research.

Britain, which is using the same centralised approach as France to store data, will start testing its own COVID-19 tracing app on the Isle of Wight from Tuesday.

Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Michel Rose, additional reporting by Mathieu Rosemain; Editing by Peter Graff and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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