The Government of Canada announced the official launch of its national COVID-19 “exposure notification” app on Friday. The app is now available through IOS and the Google App Store.
The roll-out of the app comes almost a month after it was set to launch in Ontario on July 2. Reports have cited that delays were caused by the federal government looking to sign up other provinces and territories, as well as attempts to make the app more user-friendly.
The app is available through Apple and Google’s app stores across Canada, but will only be functional in Ontario.
Notably, the federal government is adamant that its application is an exposure notification app, not a contact tracing app. Officials explained the reasoning during a media briefing on Friday morning, noting that users are de-identified and locations are not tracked. “Tracing is totally different,” one official stated, arguing that contact tracing monitors the movement of people and data is collected and assessed.
The federal government explained that it’s COVID-19 app only shares info through individual codes and will function “in addition” to existing, manual contact tracing efforts being undertaken by public health authorities.
As of Friday, the app is available through Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store across Canada, but will only be functional in Ontario — as per the government’s strategy to roll out there first. The Government of Canada said it is in conversation with all provinces and territories, though could not specify a timeline as to when the exposure notification app will be functional across the country.
“Right now, it’s connected to the Ontario health system, but we know other provinces will be joining in soon, so people across the country can and should download it today,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday. “This is another tool to protect your health.”
The COVID alert exposure notification app a low risk, low reward approach. Won’t assist in contact tracing, but doesn’t raise same privacy risks + privacy commish consulted before release. Effectiveness depends upon widespread usage and willingness to report if test positive.
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) July 31, 2020
Provinces including British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador have reportedly been in talks with the government about taking part in the alert system. Some provinces have created their own apps, such as Alberta, which developed ABTraceTogether. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has accused the federal government of not allowing his province to work with tech companies like Google and Apple, which collaborated to create contact tracing tech.
When asked how COVID Alert might integrate with other jurisdictions’ systems, the government restated its plan to have one national app for tracking COVID-19.
COVID Alert was developed by Health Canada, with the help of BlackBerry and Shopify, on Apple and Google’s private exposure notification framework.
The app uses bluetooth to exchange random codes between nearby phones, estimating how far away the other phones are based on the strength of their bluetooth signals, altering these codes every five minutes. Users who test positive for COVID-19 will receive a one-time key from their public health authority, which they can enter into the app in order to notify users that someone they came in close contact with tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks. The app defines close contact between users as within two metres of one other for at least 15 minutes.
The app also provides users notified of a potential exposure with information on how to keep themselves and others safe.
It is emphasized that COVID Alert is a completely voluntary app and only works if Canadians opt in and download it. Officials noted that the government will be looking to promote the app to ensure people are aware of the option to use it.
According to the federal government, COVID Alert does not use location data, or access users’ names, addresses, or the place or time they were near someone. Throughout the day, the app checks a list of codes from people who tell the app they tested positive, sending users a notification if a code they received matches one of the positive codes.
While no location data is stored or transmitted by the app, the government noted that for the app to work Android users need to turn on location settings, as that is a prerequisite for Bluetooth to be able to run in the background. Government officials noted, however, that COVID Alert’s permissions do not allow it to access location. Apple users do not need to change their location settings for the app to work.
During this app’s first phase, health authorities in Ontario will begin distributing one-time keys to people who test positive for the virus, allowing them to self-report COVID-19 diagnoses through the app. The Government of Canada said it is working with the other provinces and territories to make this function available across Canada.
The government noted that in order to protect against cyber attacks, Canadian servers will store users’ IP addresses for three months (and in the case of an identified security incident, up to 2 years). It added that this is a standard part of how it protects online systems from cybersecurity threats.
As part of an ongoing process to assess and further develop the app the government has enlisted the help of an advisory council. Carole Piovesan, partner and co-founder at INQ Data Law, a Toronto firm specializing in data governance, data ethics, cybersecurity law, privacy and artificial intelligence, is heading up the group. Its members also include Element AI CEO and co-founder Jean-François Gagné, as well as other private sector members and government officials.
Image source Government of Canada