16:22 GMT15 January 2021
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    Paris is struggling to reduce its dependence on US technological dominance by switching from Google to Qwant, France's own search engine. Speaking to Sputnik, cyber security experts shared their views on Paris's effort to protect its digital sovereignty.

    France's move to discard Google is not a surprise, says Kevin Curran, professor of cyber security at the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Built Environment at Ulster University, Coleraine.

    'No Other Company Holds as Much Sensitive Data'

    "Google services hold an incredible array of details on individuals and when you apply that to soldiers or people working in foreign intelligence, then the data Google stores on them can be the only system that a foreign adversary needs to tap," the academic told Sputnik.

    He underscored that one should not forget "that Google services store a person's complete location history, search history, apps used, and footprint online." 

    "No other company holds as much sensitive data," he stressed. "Even if Google could be proven not to allow backdoors in, having that information on an army or agency workers stored by Google is a weak part in any country defence initiatives. I suspect other countries will follow this move by France."

    On 1 October, 2018 the French National Assembly and the French Army Ministry announced that their digital services would stop using Google and switch to Qwant search engine. Launched in 2013, Qwant claims neither to employ user tracking nor to personalize search results.

    "Security and digital sovereignty are at stake here, which is anything but an issue only for geeks," said Florian Bachelier, a French parliamentarian on National Assembly's digital sovereignty taskforce, kicked off in April 2018.

    Everything Comes At a Price

    However, Lars Hilse, a digital strategy consultant from Germany, does not share France's concerns, stressing that sophisticated search tools always come at a price.

    "I'm not a Google fan boy," he told Sputnik. "In fact, some of the things they are definitely worth criticising and require a lot of scrutiny. Yet the debate over getting a complex, and highly effective service free of charge, and then complaining about the fact that I pay in data, rather than currency, bothers me. Significantly."

    The digital strategy consultant explained that although Google, and other search engines, hold "a significant amount of information on users," those unsatisfied with this fact must not forget that "all searches they submit are free."

    "Providing these services requires a significant amount of infrastructure. And of course a significant work force," Hilse elaborated. "All of this has to be paid for, which happens in this case, through the placement of individualised advertisements Google serves to the user through a search. Would Google not take the data to place these highly individualised advertisements, users would not click on them, and ergo they couldn't attract so many advertisers, which in turn would jeopardise the business model entirely."

    Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, 2nd right, chats with British entrepeneur Brent Hoberman, left, anti-cyber bullying campaigner James Okulaja, 2nd left, and President of EMEA Business and Operations for Google, Matt Brittin during his visit to launch the national action plan to tackle cyberbullying at the London headquarters of Google and YouTube in King's Cross, London, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.
    © AP Photo / Tolga Akmen
    Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, 2nd right, chats with British entrepeneur Brent Hoberman, left, anti-cyber bullying campaigner James Okulaja, 2nd left, and President of EMEA Business and Operations for Google, Matt Brittin during his visit to launch the national action plan to tackle cyberbullying at the London headquarters of Google and YouTube in King's Cross, London, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.

    Commenting on former CIA employee Edward Snowden's exposure of NSA spying practices which led to Paris's decision to protect its digital sovereignty, the expert admitted that one sees "a lot of movements towards more privacy on the web." According to Hilse, "this privacy hype is a European thing, without wanting to take the consequences into account."

    However, he noted that one should wait and see whether Qwant will prove effective. "As for the safety angle: unlike many other companies, Google hasn't had a significant breach to report on in their history."

    Having agreed that American and Chinese IT giants have long maintained dominance on the global market the digital strategy consultant expressed doubts that European high-tech companies could compete with them.

    "For European companies to compete against those from the US and China, a new Zeitgeist would have to surface," Hilse remarked. "A lot of entrepreneurship has to be present for tech companies to arise and compete against the existing tech giants."

    He warned against demonising US and Chinese efforts for data control: "If other countries would have a shot at this, they'd take it also," he opined.

    Hilse has drawn attention to the fact that "with the introduction of the web we have seen that we can communicate freely, across borders with little limitations" while "with the advent of crypto currency the first concept of a true, global currency was born." Its selling point is that it remains outside the reach of the world's governments, he highlighted.

    As for France, "[it] is different in many ways," he said. "While we're all moving to make the world a global village there will always be people who think they know better, and that we should protect national interests."

    It's Difficult to Resist US, Chinese Hi-Tech Dominance

    Speaking to Sputnik, Fow Chee Kang, associate director and managing consultant of LGMS, expressed doubts that the proposed system would really solve France's dilemma.

    "[From the] cyber security point of view, it's just another system, other than Google, that get your data," Chee Kang said. "The system may be good at protecting digital sovereignty, however, if the system has not been tested via proper security testing by [a] certified firm, it may end up exposing all its users' information like what we have seen in the past few years when giant technology companies system got compromised."

    Moreover, it may not be easy for a country to start form the scratch and reinvent the wheel, the cyber security expert remarked.

    Still, he does not rule out that "if this initiative by France proved to be a success in protecting its digital sovereignty, we may soon see other developed European countries follow in its footsteps, with high possibility of using the same system instead of creating another Qwant."

    At the same time, the expert has drawn attention to the fact that the US and China have managed to come out on top not only in creating software but also in producing cutting-edge hardware.

    "At the moment it is rather difficult to resist dominance of American and Chinese companies in terms of technology devices," he explained. "As everyone may have aware, majority of the devices connected to the Internet are either made in China or designed in US; though it does not mean these companies are actively collecting user information, they are still playing an important role in creating devices that transmit, process and store user information."

    According to Chee Kang, France's digital sovereignty largely depends on the country's ability to substitute US and China-made hardware for its own devices. "Until then, the digital sovereignty protection in place may be considered as minimal," he warned.

    "Nevertheless, France will still be unable to control data outflows from the country being captured by technology devices that are created by American-Chinese companies," the expert concluded.

    The views and opinions expressed by the speakers do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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