Ottawa plans up to $10 million for COVID Alert public awareness campaign

Digital Government Joyce Murray in the House of Commons in June 2019.
Digital Government Joyce Murray in the House of Commons in June 2019. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang

The federal government will spend up to $10 million on a public awareness campaign to boost downloads of the COVID Alert exposure-notification app, while Apple and Google are also planning to promote the app for free, according to Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray.  

Although COVID Alert is available for download across the country, Ontario’s health system is currently the only one issuing the one-time codes necessary to generate alerts. “We expect that all the provinces and territories will be part of this in due course,” said Murray in an interview with The Logic.

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Talking Point

Ottawa is planning a public awareness campaign worth up to $10 million to promote COVID Alert and increase downloads of the national exposure-notification app. Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray told The Logic she expects all provinces and territories to eventually join the system, but would not commit to legislation recommended by digital-policy experts to prevent businesses and local governments from making use of the app mandatory.

COVID Alert has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times since its official launch on Friday. The system is built on Apple and Google’s exposure-notification API, which uses Bluetooth to exchange keys with nearby devices. Users who test positive for COVID-19 are given a one-time code to enter into the app, which uploads their keys to a central server; anyone who was in close proximity to the patient within the previous fortnight then gets a notification.

Ottawa anticipates its public awareness efforts will cost as much as $10 million. “Federal promotion efforts, which will include advertising and outreach to key stakeholders, will complement efforts to promote the app by each province and territory as they roll out the app,” said Murray, noting that Ontario is already involved with the campaign. “Apple, Google and a variety of retail organizations also plan to promote the app, for free, and amplify the reach of messages.” 

In March, the federal government committed $30 million to an ad campaign advising people on personal hygiene and social-distancing measures to limit the spread of the virus.

Alberta is the only other jurisdiction with its own app, ABTraceTogether, which has 234,000 registered users; New Brunswick has put its system on hold. “A national exposure-notification approach is the best way forward for Canada, because of the amount of interprovincial travel that happens in our country,” said Murray, who noted that Atlantic Canada would likely begin participating shortly

COVID Alert only works on devices running iOS 13.5 and Android 6.0 or newer operating systems, meaning smartphones released more than five years ago aren’t compatible. “This is a Google-Apple foundational API issue,” said Murray, adding that the government has “asked them to explore how they could address that. It’s in Apple and Google’s hands.” 

Ottawa continues to conduct traditional contact tracing, with employees retasked from other departments to make calls. The app “has never been intended to be a solution for everyone,” Murray said. But COVID Alert may be effective for some groups. “Younger people, who tend to have newer phones, are an extremely relevant target for the app,” she said, citing “where some of the outbreaks are coming up, especially in the United States.” 

Last month, chief public health officer Theresa Tam highlighted rising infection rates among people aged 20 to 39 years old and told them to “take this disease, and our responsibility to protect others, seriously.”   

Smartphone ownership tends to be lower among older, lower-income and racialized people, all of whom are particularly susceptible to the virus. In June, Ryerson University’s Cybersecure Policy Exchange called for Ottawa to pass legislation preventing employers, businesses and government agencies from requiring that people use an app like COVID Alert in order to gain access to their workplaces or services. 

“As a federal government, we are clear that this is a voluntary action, to use this app,” said Murray, adding that the Canadian Digital Service, which developed COVID Alert, has worked with the federal and Ontario privacy commissioners to ensure the system protects users’ privacy. But she declined to commit to introducing rules such as those recommended by the CPE. “It is not for the government to be dictating what other private-sector or public-sector organizations are using as their criteria for providing service,” she said. 

In a subsequent email, Murray noted again that the app is voluntary to use, citing a May recommendation from federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners. “Individuals should not be required to use the app or to disclose information about their use of the app,” she said.

Few governments have seen significant uptake of their contact-tracing or exposure-notification apps. Singapore’s TraceTogether, on which Alberta’s version is based, had been downloaded 1.8 million times as of early June. The city-state has 5.7 million residents, and officials previously said they were aiming for three-quarters of the population. Ireland’s app, which uses the Google-Apple API, had 1.3 million downloads in eight days, representing about a third of smartphone users.

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An April study by Oxford University epidemiologists said 60 per cent uptake would have a significant effect on the outbreak, although lower levels still reduced case counts. Murray said while the government is hoping for as many people as possible to download COVID Alert, there isn’t a particular threshold below which it considers the app to be ineffective. Users who receive notifications are likely to be more careful, for example not visiting elderly family members, monitoring their symptoms or seeking health advice, she said. “Those caution-based behaviours will reduce the spread of the coronavirus.” 

Privacy commissioners across the country and rights groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have also called for pandemic-prompted apps and data collection to be time-limited. The government isn’t directly gathering personal information via COVID Alert. Murray said the app can be quickly decommissioned, and she will take guidance on when it is no longer needed and should be sunsetted from a recently established 11-member advisory council co-chaired by Element AI CEO Jean-François Gagné and data lawyer Carole Piovesan.