Voluntary nationwide contact tracing app coming soon, says Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he hopes Canadians will download a new app on their cellphones that will alert them if they've come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Today's announcement likely to receive scrutiny from privacy advocates

A man looks at his phone while standing near artwork of a woman wearing a protective face mask in Vancouver on May 31. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he hopes Canadians will download a new app on their cellphones that will alert them if they've come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

"It will be up to individual Canadians to decide whether to download the app or not, but the app will be most effective when as many people as possible have it," Trudeau said during his daily briefing this morning.

"There are over 30 million smartphones that could take this app in Canada, so we can talk about a significant portion of the Canadian population that could be protected by this app."

The federally-backed project has been spearheaded by the Canadian Digital Service, a federal initiative, and the Ontario Digital Service, with help from volunteers from the tech firm Shopify. It incorporates Bluetooth technology provided by Apple and Google. The app will undergo a security review by BlackBerry.

The technology works by having people who test positive upload their results anonymously to the app, called COVID Alert, using a temporary code given to them by a health care provider, said a federal media release.

Watch: Trudeau describes how the new COVID-19 contact tracing app will work

Trudeau describes how the new COVID-19 contact tracing app will work

3 years ago
Duration 2:39
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveils a new smart phone application designed to warn people when they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Other users who have the app and who have been near someone who has tested positive will then be alerted that they've been exposed and a notification will encourage them to reach out to their local public health authorities.

Ontario will roll out the app first. Officials in that province said they hope to have the app available for download on July 2 for iPhones running iOS 5.0 or later versions, and for Android phones running Android 6.0 or later versions.

The federal government said it wants to eventually have it in use across Canada in the coming weeks and months, with the risk of a second wave on the horizon.

Public health officials have been championing the practice of tracking people who may have come in contact with an infected person in order to get them tested and isolated. Contact tracing is widely seen as vital to a country's pandemic recovery.

While most provinces are doing that laborious work with volunteers, conversations and negotiations have continued with technology companies for weeks about the development of smartphone apps to speed up the effort.

Last month, Trudeau said the government was hoping to publicly endorse one app to encourage its use across the country.

App use is voluntary, says PM

In a rare collaboration, Apple and Google have teamed up on software that notifies people automatically if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. It uses Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tested positive for the virus.

Trudeau said that will allow the app to run in the background without rapidly draining a phone's battery.

 "It's something you can just download and forget about," he said.

"Because it's completely anonymous, because it's low maintenance, because it is completely respectful of your privacy, — including no location services or geotagging of any sort — people can be confident that this is an easy measure that they can have to continue to keep us all safe as we reopen, as we get more active."

The tech giants are providing the software, but public health agencies around the world will have to develop their own contact tracing apps. In an attempt to promote use, Apple and Google are restricting use of their technology to one app per country.

Alberta has been using its own app called ABTraceTogether for weeks now. That has some people worrying about a patchwork of apps across the country that could lead to confusing messaging, low uptake numbers and inconsistent data.

The government-backed national contact tracing app is built on COVID Shield, seen here, an open sourced tool developed by a group of volunteers from Shopify. (COVID Shield)

"I think any amount of people that download it will be useful for that person and for our society," said Trudeau.

"But it's certain that if we can talk about a 50 per cent uptake, for example, or more, then it becomes extraordinarily useful."

Trudeau stressed that the new app will be completely voluntary and added that the federal privacy commissioner worked on the app.

However, in a statement issued later in the day, a spokesperson for the privacy commissioner's office said it's still waiting for more information about the app.

"We have requested and are awaiting necessary information and, until such time as we receive that information, we have not provided our recommendations to the government," said Vito Pilieci in an email to CBC.

"We are working diligently and responsibly to develop that advice."

Privacy advocates have raised concerns about contact tracing apps — about the data they collect and how that information is stored.

Teresa Scassa, the Canada research chair in information law and policy at the University of Ottawa, said the Bluetooth model is the most "privacy-protective", but it's also the least ambitious.

"I think in the current climate it would have been difficult to go with with a different solution other than [the] most privacy-protective one, because I do think that there is a trust deficit," she said.

Scassa said she's also not certain Canadians will rush to the app store to download it.

"I'm not convinced that this is going to be a success and I think the important thing to remember is that contact tracing apps have now been launched in many different countries and it's not clear that they've been a success anywhere that they've been launched," she said.

"The level of uptake has been relatively low wherever they've been launched."

Claudiu Popa, a cybersecurity expert with Datarisk Canada, said he's still waiting to see more information about how the anonymous data is to be stored.

"We've seen the use of artificial intelligence and and big data being used around the world, and of course the PR movement towards just how beneficial this is," he said. "That is not what we should be after. We should be after helping individuals and increasing public health while balancing and maximizing public trust."


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