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Federal COVID-19 app launches after month-long delay

The new exposure notification app, backed by the federal and Ontario governments.
The new exposure notification app, backed by the federal and Ontario governments. Government of Ontario
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The federal government’s exposure-notification app launched in Ontario Friday, after a nearly month-long delay during which Ottawa unsuccessfully tried to get other provinces to sign on. 

The COVID Alert app uses Bluetooth to monitor who interacts with whom. If someone tests positive, they can enter a code provided by health authorities and anyone they’ve been within two metres of for at least 15 minutes within the previous 14 days will be notified.

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Talking Point

Ontario is the first province to sign on to the federal government’s exposure-notification app. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Atlantic Canada provinces will be next and talks with other provinces are ongoing. The federal government worked with Apple and Google on the technology underlying the app. A Shopify volunteer team provided the original code, and BlackBerry helped with security reviews.

The app can be downloaded by anyone in Canada on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, but currently only those in Ontario can report a diagnosis through the app. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Atlantic Canada provinces will be the next to connect their health systems to the app, and that discussions with other provinces are ongoing. “We expect they’ll be coming on board soon, as well,” he said

“Health experts say if enough people sign up, this app can help prevent future outbreaks of COVID-19 in Canada.” 

The government originally intended to launch it on July 2, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford suggested it was delayed to give the federal government more time to sign up other provinces. Earlier this week, The Logic reported that British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador were in discussions and that Quebec health ministry officials received a demonstration of the app. 

Unlike Alberta’s ABTraceTogether app, which launched in May, the COVID Alert app will run in the background even if a phone is locked. 

The federal government worked with Apple and Google on the technology underlying the app. A Shopify volunteer team provided the original code, and BlackBerry helped with security reviews. The app does not collect users’ locations, names, addresses, phone contacts, health information or the information of those near them. However, Android users will need to keep their location settings on for the app to work. The federal and Ontario privacy commissioners support the app’s use, but want its effectiveness and privacy protections monitored. 

In April, The Logic reported that the Canadian Civil Liberties Association had a number of concerns about these kinds of apps. Executive director Michael Bryant said the voluntary nature of the app helps address constitutional concerns regarding privacy and freedom. “As for the app COVID Alert, it’s not terrible,” said Bryant. “There are important technical and practical questions about whether it will work as advertised. Time will tell.“

“This app will only work if people trust their personal information will be protected and choose to use the technology,” said Ontario privacy commissioner Patricia Kosseim. “Based on our review of the app and acceptance of our recommendations, I am satisfied that there are strong measures built in to help protect individual privacy.”

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The federal government is theoretically looking for 60 per cent of Canadians, or about 23 million people, to download the app. Fifty-six per cent of Canadians would be “somewhat” or “very likely” to use this kind of app if public health authorities recommended it, according to a survey released Friday by Statistics Canada.