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2020/05/19Tracing, not Tracking (Général Watin-Augouard)

From tracking to tracing: one letter less seems to make a huge difference. In truth, the gap is wide open! On the one hand, geolocation tracking of people, with a profound invasion of privacy; on the other hand, the desire to reconcile freedom and health security, two principles of constitutional value.

Recently, we quite rightly criticised the use of digital technologies in the Chinese way, underlining the Orwellian nature of such a system. Today, this model is knocking at our door.

The debate on the “StopCovid” app is divisive. The subject is so sensitive that the debate in the national assembly, scheduled for 28 April, has been postponed by the Prime Minister. In addition to questions about its effectiveness, the app also raises issues about the processing of the most sensitive personal data: health data.

If such an app were to be authorised, it would have to comply with strict specifications. “StopCovid” must have a limited time frame and scope. It must be a mere “follow-up of contacts”, not a follow-up of people exposed or tested positive to the virus. If used on a voluntary basis, without any positive or negative consideration, it could minimise any direct or indirect identification of the individuals who would use it.

“StopCovid” is the result of urgent work within the framework of the “Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing” (PEPP-PT), a European research project bringing together more than 130 high-level scientists from eight countries, including France, Germany, and Switzerland.

But on 26 April, Germany announced that it was leaving the European project. Of course, each country is sovereign and can therefore choose what it wants, knowing that health is not within the remit of the EU. Still, it is a bad blow to European unity, which does not need it at the moment!

Germany is now turning to Apple and Google, which have developed a “decentralised” technology, as opposed to the centralisation-decentralisation features of the model called ROBERT (for ROBust and privacy presERving proximity Tracing) that is at the heart of “StopCovid”. Even though the model indeed requires further improvements, must we really give up? Admittedly, we are already dependent on Apple and Google, which must – if they so accept – modify their operating system to allow “StopCovid” to work on the smartphones sold in France and Europe. This has not been the case for Apple. Cédric O has underlined the difficulties linked to privacy protection and the interconnection with the health system, but he rejects the solutions proposed by the American giants, which cannot replace the States in the control of the health system and the fight against the coronavirus.

The Germans have a made a choice (but is it really final?) for the sake of pragmatism. Should we follow them, as we are invited to by some editorialists, in particular Jean-Francis Pécresse (Les Echos)? Should digital sovereignty wait, once again? Isn’t the crisis precisely the opportunity to regain it? Giving up would mean abandoning the development of European technologies and breaking the momentum that brings together large companies, research centres and startups on a project that will bring forward the digital Europe called for by the Commission. Isn’t it time to offer “another way, another voice” for Europe?

The question beyond this essential sovereignty issue is that of the legitimacy of a “tracing” technology. Technological progress goes through several stages: Is it feasible (conceptually)? Can it be done (technically)? Is it allowed to be done (legally)? Is it accepted (socially)? Social acceptability is indeed a necessary condition. But sometimes another stage has to be added: that of politics, in the noblest sense of the word. In this case, technology is at the heart of a dilemma between two fundamental principles that are rooted in our constitution: freedom and health. Can one be sacrificed for the benefit of the other? What is the right balance to be struck, under the pressure of a public opinion that fears death? Can we choose a short-term horizon (saving those we can save) to the detriment of a long-term horizon that inscribes freedom in the longer term? We need to remember that this short-sighted logic has led us to stop the manufacture of masks and drugs on our territory… The question is indeed technical, legal, and sociological, but it is primarily political. Politics is the art of making choices, sometimes against the mainstream thought. This is how we recognise statesmen who are making History – politicians who forget about history to become accountants and managers of the present moment. The time has come for a sovereign decision. But when the time is up…

 

Army General (2S) Marc Watin-Augouard

Founder of the International Cybersecurity Forum (FIC)