PM says a national contact tracing app is coming next month, how will it work?
OTTAWA -- The federal government will begin testing a “completely voluntary” mobile contact tracing app in Ontario, to eventually be used nationwide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday. The app will compile confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and notify Canadians when they’ve been in proximity to someone who has the virus.
The government intends to make the free app available for download in early July and said that the program will be compatible with 30 million smartphones in Canada, meaning a significant portion of the population could use the app and be notified directly if they’ve come into contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
Trudeau described the app as one that people can download and forget about, though it is set to face scrutiny over the fine print of its privacy and permissions settings, as Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien says he’s yet to offer his recommendations about the app to the government.
In making the announcement the prime minister said the case monitoring and exposure notification application a “crucial” public health step as more Canadians begin resuming some semblance of normal life, including returning to work.
“I want to stress that this will be completely voluntary. 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.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday afternoon that the app will be part of the province’s overall tracing strategy.
“If we can trace, we can track it,” Ford said, adding that his government will have more to say in the coming days about the “made-in-Ontario” app.
Health authorities in Ontario will be the first to distribute the unique codes to people who test positive for COVID-19.
Trudeau said there are other provinces, including British Columbia, that are working with the federal government on the app, but it will be available to anyone in Canada who wants to use it.
“It'll actually allow us to have a better sense of when there are spikes or resurgences of a virus in a particular area or not because more people will be getting that notification and calling their local public health authorities, so any level of uptake would be useful,” Trudeau said, adding that he hopes Canadians view the app as an easy added layer of protection.
HOW IT WILL WORK
The app was originally developed by the Government of Ontario and the prime minister said that the Canadian Digital Service —a federal body—will work with Shopify and Blackberry on the new software, which Apple and Google have teamed up to offer, using Bluetooth technology to register when devices may come into proximity with one another.
The technology will be owned and operated by the Government of Canada.
The plan with the app is to have a health-care professional help Canadians who test positive upload their status anonymously into the national network.
Then, other users who have the app will be alerted if they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive, encouraging them to reach out to their local public health agency.
The app will also provide users with information on the latest jurisdiction-specific public health information.
“There will be a database of randomized codes associated with each smartphone that has this app that will be divided into two columns: those who may have tested positive, and those who have not tested positive. So if your phone gets in proximity for a certain amount of time, at a certain closeness to another phone, it'll register that it has had contact with that anonymized number,” Trudeau said.
The app will be available for Ontarians to download on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store in the coming weeks.
ONE APP ACROSS CANADA?
As it was first billed, the federal government’s intent was to come out with a single contact tracing app that would be “recommended strongly” to be used across the country, but as Health Minister Patty Hajdu signalled earlier this month, that plan has faced pushback from some provinces that preferred to conduct contact-tracing “the old-fashioned way,” or who had already launched their own digital tracing methods.
The traditional contact tracing currently being done involves people making calls for various public health agencies to help track down anyone who may have come into contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases.
If all provinces don’t sign on or endorse the app, Canada could end up with a patchwork of applications being used across the country and, as a result, limited efficacy when it comes to interprovincial spread.
In an effort to lobby all Canadians to come on side, Trudeau said the app will be customized to each province that signs on.
“It will be one app that whether you download it and live in Ontario and travel to B.C. or travel to the Northwest Territories— if that becomes an option—it will work everywhere across the country. So, it's one app for all Canadians,” he said.
Asked about the role contact tracing can play, infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy said something more than the old-fashioned approach is needed.
“We look at the contact tracing ability that we have now, and we're using a 1985 form of technology, with phone calls and fax machines, for a 2020 pandemic. We need something that is going to be a bit more sophisticated a bit more efficient,” he told CTV News Channel ahead of Trudeau’s announcement.
“You can do as many tests as you want, but if you don't have the ability to identify who is in contact with a positive case, you don't really have an opportunity to stem the tide and prevent an outbreak from occurring, and community transmission to become something that's much more severe,” Sharkawy said.
Beyond the hurdles of getting public health agencies in every corner of the country to sign on, the federal government will have to address Canadians’ privacy and security hesitations in order to get the rate of downloads needed to make this effective.
There are also concerns that have been raised around the adequacy of current privacy laws to protect Canadians should a breach occur.
Trudeau said Thursday that “the privacy of Canadians will be fully respected,” and that the government has spoken to the privacy commissioner about the application.
However, in a statement to CTVNews.ca, Therrien’s office said they were “recently contacted by Health Canada” 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. We are working diligently and responsibly to develop that advice,” said Therrien’s office.
The federal government is also establishing an external advisory council “to provide guidance during the roll-out of the app with a view to ensuring it operates in a transparent way and in the public interest.”
In May, Therrien issued a joint statement with provincial and territorial privacy commissioners, calling for governments to ensure that any applications being developed or recommended respect Canadian privacy laws.
Among the privacy watchdog’s recommendations: ensuring the app was voluntary; its scope and ability to monitor users’ behaviour must be science-based; the data collected is de-identified as much as possible; and that it is subject to independent oversight.
“At no time will personal information be collected or shared, and no location services will be used,” Trudeau said, calling the app “totally secure and completely anonymized.”
Tech analyst Carmy Levy said in an interview on CTV News Channel that while he’ll wait and see how the app functions when it’s downloadable, it is a positive step to see the app won’t use location services. But he said that even with “all reasonable efforts” being taken to strip away identifiable information, to a certain degree nothing is fully anonymous.
“We are opening up a bit of a privacy Pandora's box. Are we taking reasonable precautions? Yes… But kind of have to balance that and gauge, what are we getting back in return for this risk? Are we allowing ourselves to get ahead of the pandemic?”
Ryerson's Cybersecure Policy Exchange released a report on contact tracing earlier this month and it found that based on a survey of 2,000 Canadians in mid-May, a majority of those surveyed were supportive of making some form of anonymized app mandatory.
Thursday marks 100 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and it was on this day that Canada officially recorded more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19, as provinces continue to ramp up testing to understand accurate levels of infection in the country.