April 27, 2020 / 1:01 PM / a month ago

French lawmakers cry foul as government redraws coronavirus app debate

PARIS (Reuters) - Lawmakers from France’s ruling party accused their own government on Monday of withdrawing a vote on a planned coronavirus tracing app, saying they had been robbed of a chance to raise privacy concerns.

FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a protective face mask rides a metro as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Paris, France, April 26, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo

The government last week bowed to pressure from MPs and promised a parliamentary debate and vote on the “StopCovid” smartphone software, which is designed to warn users if they come into contact with infected people.

But over the weekend, prime minister Edouard Philippe wrote to the lower house speaker, saying he wanted to broaden the debate scheduled for April 28-29 to cover the government’s entire strategy on ending coronavirus lockdowns.

A government source defended the decision on Monday, telling Reuters the government needed to move on quickly with its plans. Commentators said the move would also avoid a public display of division in the ruling La République en Marche group over the app.

Some lawmakers across France’s political divide have said the software raises serious issues about state surveillance and privacy. Civil liberties groups have raised similar questions about apps being considered and used across the world to try and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Marginalising and erasing the debate about digital tracing shows how illegitimate using it will be,” tweeted Sacha Houlie, an MP from President Emmanuel Macron’s party who had told Reuters earlier he would vote against the app.

Aurelien Tache, another MP from the ruling party also criticised the decision.

“A single vote on the deconfinement plan, and therefore without the possibility to express oneself about digital tracing specifically ... does not amount to a sufficient level of parliamentary democracy,” he tweeted.

The prime minister did not immediately respond to the complaints.

The French privacy watchdog CNIL said over the weekend the app would comply with French and European privacy rules but called for “vigilance” over its deployment.

A group of French IT specialists also published an open letter on Sunday warning that the Bluetooth-based app could potentially lead to “mass surveillance” by collecting data on interactions between individuals.

Cedric O, the minister who is supervising the app’s development, said on Sunday its source code, central server and settings will be open to ensure transparency.

Germany at the weekend abandoned a ‘centralised’ approach to smartphone contact tracing, which it had developed with France, that would have required the personal data of volunteers to be stored on a server.

Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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