Deployment of COVID Alert app faces accessibility criticism

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The federal government’s COVID-19 exposure notification app has come under criticism for its download requirements, which prevent some Canadians from accessing and using it.The free “COVID Alert” app, which became available on Friday, is designed to track the location of phones in relation to each other, without centrally collecting personal data anywhere.

Users are notified if their phone has recently been near the phone of someone who later volunteers to say they have tested positive for COVID-19.

The app quickly became the most downloaded free app in Canada, topping the Apple App Store and Google Play Store charts, with more than 1.18 million Canadians downloading the app on Sunday night, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat told CBC. News.

But the app requires users to have Apple or Android phones made within the past five years and a relatively new operating system.

Application inaccessible to older Canadians, marginalized groups: expert

Christopher Parsons, senior research associate at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy, says this makes the app inaccessible to older Canadians and other marginalized groups who are often most affected by the pandemic , including blacks and aboriginals. people, people of color and those from lower socio-economic classes.

“Who will not be able to install the application? This same group… that’s a problem, ”he said.

Parsons said the criticisms should be directed at the federal government, not at those who designed the app.

He believes that the technical aspects of the app, like its ease of use and performance in both official languages, have been well done and the developers should be commended.

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains the new COVID Alert app:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa how the new federal COVID app will alert Canadians if they are near someone who tests positive for the virus. 2:32

“It’s a failure of politics,” he said. “The government should have seen this… they should have predicted it, I hope someone did, and they should have done something to try and start fixing it. ”

He added that the issue of needing an app that works with older smartphones was known from the start.

For the app to work properly, he said, 65 to 80% of all Canadians must use it, but the current version of the app makes that impossible.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat referred questions about the technical requirements of the app to Google and Apple, but noted that the app is only a tool to slow the spread of COVID-19.

He did not respond to a question about a potential timeline for the issue at hand.

Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said in a statement that the download requirements presented an “obvious” problem.

“People who cannot afford the latest technology cannot download and use the COVID Alert app, but data shows COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on neighborhoods with low incomes and high unemployment », She declared.

It is essential that the federal government recognize the problem and commit to finding ways to resolve it, McPhail said.

App currently linked to Ontario’s health care system only

Ontario NDP lawmaker Marit Stiles took to Twitter to share her parents’ frustration with trying to download the app.

Stiles’ parents, both aged 70, tried to download the app on their old iPhones, but it didn’t work.

“They are so frustrated that… the app will not work on their phone,” she said in an interview. “It surprised me. ”

Stiles said this raises concerns about accessibility for more vulnerable Canadians.

“I think everyone agrees that the app is not a bad idea,” she said. “We know that seniors, seniors, new Canadians, racialized people are the most likely to contract or be affected by COVID-19… so it might be a bit of a problem that the app only works ‘with the fanciest or most expensive new phones. ”

For now, the smartphone app is only linked to the Ontario health system, with the Atlantic provinces to be the next provinces to link.

The federal government worked with the country’s three largest telecommunications companies – Rogers, Bell and Telus – to send bulk text messages to their customers in Ontario over the weekend encouraging them to download the app, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Innovation, Science and the Economy. Development confirmed to CBC News.

Neither Apple nor Google have returned requests for comment on the accessibility issue.

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