Plans for single COVID-19 contact tracing app facing resistance: health minister
OTTAWA -- The federal government’s plans to “strongly” recommend Canadians download a to-be-determined COVID-19 contact tracing app may not happen as initially billed, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said on Monday, indicating there’s been pushback from some regions of the country to the idea.
On May 22, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the federal government was looking into various monitoring and exposure notification applications to help monitor the virus’ spread.
At the time he said the government was working with a “number of different partners” on potential apps, and that in the coming weeks Ottawa intends to “recommend strongly to Canadians a particular app that will help us manage the spread of COVID-19.”
However, Hajdu told reporters on Monday that “some jurisdictions prefer” the contact tracing already being done “the old-fashioned way.”
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.
Hajdu said talks continue with the provinces and territories over a digital supplement, but noted that an app would only be effective if people were encouraged, and wanted to use it.
“As the minister of health of course, having a digital contact tracing app would likely be helpful,” she said. “One of the things that I think from a health perspective we're keeping our eye on is the usefulness of an app if there is not a high take-up.”
On Monday the prime minister did make a brief comment about contact tracing, stating the need for cross-Canada collaboration.
“We need to co-operate on countrywide testing and contact tracing,” he said, indicating “good progress” was being made.
Hajdu noted that some regions have already begun using their own digital tracking methods and indicated there may be a desire to see the use of these tools continue, which could result in a patchwork of applications being used across the country that would have limited efficacy when it comes to cross-border spread.
“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,” said Hajdu.
PRIVACY CZAR NOT YET CONSULTED
Another aspect contributing to some unease around the idea are the outstanding questions around privacy protections.
Last week while testifying before the House Industry, Science, and Technology Committee, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien told MPs that he had yet to be consulted about any potential app options and expressed concerns about the adequacy of current privacy laws to protect Canadians should a breach occur with a contact tracing app.
“The current crisis I would say clearly shows that there will be a need to accelerate the technological revolution that was already at play before COVID, and this acceleration requires an even stronger legal framework,” he said.
Earlier this month Therrien and provincial and territorial privacy commissioners issued a joint statement calling for governments to ensure that any applications being developed or recommended respect Canadian privacy laws.
Hajdu didn’t say definitively when asked on Monday whether the federal government would commit to consulting with Therrien, but said that privacy will be a priority.
“We know that privacy is of utmost importance to Canadians and so the work is ongoing right now to look at a variety of different options that has privacy as the first and foremost consideration,” she told reporters.
Conservative industry critic Michelle Rempel Garner issued a statement following Therrien’s testimony, calling it “absolutely unacceptable” that he hadn’t been looped in on the federal government’s study of potential applications.
“Now that Canadians are being required to conduct business online, work and attend school from home; and now may be required to install a tracking mechanism on their cellphones, it is difficult to underscore the potential for disaster in the event of a leak or hack,” she said.