Federal government rules out adoption of Mila Institute’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app

A man wearing a protective face mask looks at his phone while walking in Vancouver in April 2020. The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

The federal government has ruled out an endorsement of one of the highest-profile Canadian efforts to develop a COVID-19 contact-tracing smartphone app, The Logic has learned.

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Talking Point

Though Health Minister Patty Hajdu said this week the federal government was getting resistance from some provinces and territories, it still hopes to endorse a single contact-tracing app for national use. While Mila’s Covi Canada sought that endorsement, the government isn’t comfortable with the amount of data it would have collected—seemingly clearing a path for Shopify, which is building an app based on a framework developed by Apple and Google.

The Covi Canada app, developed by Montreal’s Mila Institute, uses artificial intelligence to predict the user’s risk level. 

The decision against adopting Mila’s app, which is based on the protocols developed by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), strongly suggests the federal government will instead endorse an app based on Apple and Google exposure notification application programming interface. Ottawa-based Shopify, which has developed an app based on the two companies’ technology, is arguably the country’s most prominent remaining contender.

“The government has chosen another technology and we’re okay with that. It’s really their prerogative,” Mila CEO Valérie Pisano told The Logic. “We’re happy that Canada is looking at how technology can help with the pandemic, and if we can play a role in that, we’ll be available.”

The federal government had privacy concerns with the amount of data that would have been collected by Mila’s app, according to a source with knowledge of the matter. Mila’s app asked users to input their age, gender, location and medical history in order to enhance the app’s predictive ability. 

The source, who spoke on the condition they not be named because they weren’t authorized to comment, said several provincial governments prefer simpler solutions like the Google and Apple API, which only collect proximity data. 

On May 22, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters the government was in discussions with several potential partners on a digital contact-tracing app, and in the subsequent weeks would “recommend strongly to Canadians a particular app that will help us manage the spread of COVID-19.”

On Monday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said plans to recommend a single app nationally had met resistance from some provinces and territories. “I think whatever path that we choose to go forward with a digital app for contact tracing, it has to be an app that Canadians will feel comfortable using and that we can gain momentum with,” she said.

Mila put together a 50-person team to develop their app shortly after social distancing began in March. Waterloo-based BlackBerry has been stress-testing the app’s security system, said Pisano, who added that Mila delivered a beta version of the app to the federal government two weeks ago. Mindful of the privacy concerns surrounding the app, the research institute recently appointed former judges Louise Arbour and Louise Otis to head Covi Canada, the arm’s-length organization overseeing privacy issues relating to the app. 

While Google and Apple API-based apps are simpler and less intrusive than their NHS equivalents, they are also less accurate, with more tendency for “false positives, false negatives, and delays introduced into the process of notification,” according to a recent study from the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford. 

The API-based app doesn’t fully work on iPhones older than the 6s, released in September 2016. In contrast, Mila’s app works on iPhone 4s and above. “We may have a better solution than Apple and Google, but I’m old enough to remember the Betamax versus VHS. Just because the technology is better, doesn’t mean it’s going to get used,” said Richard Janda, a member of the steering committee for the Covi Canada project.

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Despite the setback, Mila said there may yet be life for its app. The research institute is still in discussions with the Quebec government, while Mila scientific director Yoshua Bengio believes the app could be made compatible with its API cousin, according to Mila spokesperson Vincent Martineau.