Originally presented as a promising tool to fight the coronavirus pandemic, new numbers suggest the response to the federal government's COVID-19 "Alert" app has been underwhelming.
Only Ontario so far has embraced the software, which allows users to disclose a positive coronavirus test and alerts anyone who has come close to that person via Bluetooth tracking.
The app's success hinges on widespread use, but only about 2.2 million downloaded COVID Alert in its first month, according to Health Canada data provided to CTV News.
It's still a large number, but even if all those downloads were in Ontario, that would account for only 15 per cent of the provincial population. The percentage actually using the app in Ontario is likely even smaller. Experts suggest that a 60-per-cent adoption rate is needed to make apps like COVID Alert truly effective in stopping the spread of the virus.
Perhaps a more critical figure at this stage is how many disclosures and exposure alerts the app has facilitated. That number too is strikingly low. Though Ontario recorded more than 3,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus in August, only about 100 people reported a positive diagnosis on the app since its launch at the end of July.
The government won't provide the figures for how many people received exposure alerts from those disclosures, citing "strong privacy and security measures."
CUMBERSOME, INCOMPATIBLE, INVASIVE?
The low download and disclosure figures suggest that earlier reported issues with the app might have persisted. The app requires users to have Apple or Android brand phones made within the last five years and for those phones to have relatively new operating systems, likely leaving out millions of Canadians. The app also has a multi-step reporting process if a user tests positive for the virus, which may deter some from even reporting at all. Users must voluntarily disclose lab results by logging into a website to get a key code and then manually enter it on their phone.
While Canada's privacy watchdogs announced their support for the app in July, there may still be concern among some Canadians, said privacy lawyer David Fraser.
"Canadians are going to install this app on their phone only if they're confident that their privacy is going to be protected," he told CTV News.
Some of that trepidation revealed itself last week in Quebec where health officials concluded that the risks outweigh the benefits after a parliamentary committee featuring 18 experts testified on exposure apps like COVID Alert. The province is not moving forward with an app at this time. Other Canadian provinces as well are watching the Ontario experience and assessing options.