Montreal

Testing the public's trust: Quebec premier mulls adopting contact-tracing app

Protecting the privacy of users is an integral part of the COVI app's design, says Valérie Pisano, CEO of Montreal's AI institute Mila, as François Legault considers the app's adoption.

Protecting users' privacy integral part of COVI app's design, says CEO of Montreal's AI institute

Montreal's AI institute Mila is in talks with a number of cities and provinces, including Quebec, as well as with the federal government, to adopt COVI, which uses Bluetooth technology and user input to help assess someone's likelihood of catching the coronavirus. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Quebec Premier François Legault says the government may partner with Mila, the renowned Montreal artificial intelligence research institute, which has developed a mobile application to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

The app, called COVI, was unveiled by Mila's CEO, Valérie Pisano, and the institute's founder, machine-learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio, on the popular French-language talk show Tout le Monde en Parle Sunday.

Pisano said her team is in talks with a number of cities and provinces, as well as with the federal government, to adopt COVI, which uses Bluetooth technology and user input to help assess someone's likelihood of catching the coronavirus.

"We're considering using this application," said Legault Monday.

He said if Quebec adopts it, he hopes Ontario will, too.

For now, Quebec public health agencies are relying on the laborious efforts of individual investigators to do contact tracing — the practice of identifying every individual who has come into contact with an infected person.

Montreal public health, for example, has hired hundreds of people with health-care expertise to call COVID-positive patients and ask them to try to recall everyone with whom they may have been in contact. The investigators then contact those people, in turn, to let them know they have been exposed to the virus.

Mila CEO Valérie Pisano appeared with Yoshua Bengio, the Montreal-based institute’s founder and AI pioneer, on the popular French-language talk show Tout le Monde en Parle Sunday. (Radio-Canada)

Pisano said the asymptomatic propagation of the virus makes it difficult for human contact tracers to keep up with the spread.

"Scientific research basically shows that the traditional manual process that we usually use in pandemics is not going to be sufficient with COVID," she told CBC News in an interview Tuesday.

"At Mila, we saw an opportunity to create a contact-tracing app that would go beyond simply notifying people when they're exposed, but would actually be a tool for helping individuals make decisions every day."

The app calculates daily risk levels based on data it accumulates, including how long someone was exposed to someone who is known to have COVID-19.

Pisano said the app goes farther than other proposed contact-tracing apps because it assesses the probability that someone is carrying the virus. It's designed to give advice to users, based on their level of risk. For instance, if someone is likely to have the virus, the app will advise them to self-isolate and get tested.

Stakes are high

An expert in online privacy said asking people to adopt apps built with the express purpose of monitoring their movement is a test of the public's trust — and if that goes badly, the public may not trust institutions to use such software ever again.

"I think that we should be very deliberate in deciding whether we want to go the route of contact tracing [apps], because that is going distinctly into surveillance," said Prof. Derek Ruths, a McGill University computer scientist.

"The moment that information is getting collected to be used for aggregate or individual analysis, that's when we start getting into trouble, from a privacy perspective," Ruths said.

Pisano said protecting the privacy of users was an integral part of the development of COVI.

She said the information will be encrypted and eventually destroyed.

The app is run by a not-for-profit organization set up to oversee COVI. It has no government affiliation, Pisano said, nor does it have any commercial intention.

She said its sole goal is helping fight the spread of the virus -- and that her team hopes to make the application open-source so other developers can study, change or distribute the software.

Pisano said she should know in the next couple of weeks whether any governments are interested in using the app.

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