By Mike Masnick
We keep trying to explain to people that privacy is always about trade-offs, and arguing for privacy laws that protect “privacy” as if it’s a constant thing, will run into trouble. Most of that trouble is in the form of locking in big companies, but sometimes, the trouble is in showing you why understanding trade-offs matters so much.
France has been among the most vocal critics of “big internet companies” and demanding various regulatory pressures be used to punish them. Last year it fined Google $57 million for breaching privacy laws, and appears to be angling for even larger fines.
So it’s difficult not to burst out in laughter after finding out that the French government is really, really mad that Google and Apple are protecting people’s privacy, when suddenly the French government wants to use those companies to engage in contact tracing. Indeed, it’s literally demanding both companies ease their privacy protections to help France track people who might have COVID-19.
France has become the first country to call publicly for Apple and Google to weaken privacy protections around digital contact tracing, after its government admitted that its current plans would not work without changes to smartphone operating systems.
The issue is that, as you likely recall, earlier this month, Google and Apple collaborated on an API system to enable some form of contact tracing in various apps, but that is (a) voluntary, (b) privacy retaining (via regularly rotating identifiers), and (c) limits how much information would be sent to the government. And apparently that’s getting in the way of France’s more aggressive tracking plans:
France wants to deploy its app by 11 May, without using the special measures Apple and Google have put in place, which are targeted for release in mid-May. That means the country will be forced to use the more limited features already built into iOS, unless Apple changes its policies and allows for far more invasive use of the Bluetooth radio at the heart of its devices.
It’s quite incredible to see this play out in practice, in France of all places. Again, the French government has been among the most vocal and aggressive in attacking Google and insisting that its privacy practices are terrible… but as soon as those privacy efforts get in the way of the French government spying on people’s whereabouts, its suddenly mad at these companies for doing too much to protect privacy? Maybe Google should see if the French government wants to pay back the fines it levied before it’ll take the government’s requests seriously.