The federal government has released its long-awaited smartphone app that can alert users if they’ve been in contact with someone with COVID-19.
The free software, known as the COVID alert, is available to anyone in Apple or Google app stores, although the service it currently offers only applies to people living in Ontario.
During a press briefing in Ottawa on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was in talks to expand the application to Atlantic Canada next, and then to other parts of the country.
Use of the app is voluntary, but it will be more effective if it is widely adopted.
“It’s another tool to protect your health,” Trudeau said. “The more people use it, the better it can trace and therefore slow the spread of the virus.”
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The app relies on wireless technology known as Bluetooth, which allows phones to communicate directly with each other without a third-party middleman. Once installed, the app regularly checks a list of random number codes that have been given by provincial health agencies to people who have tested positive for COVID-19. When someone using the app chooses to enter their passcode, it will alert anyone whose phones were within two meters of that user’s phone for at least 15 minutes in the last 14 days.
Federal officials pointed out that the tool is best described as an “exposure notification app” rather than a “contact tracing app” because it does not communicate information about the identities or locations of users. . The latter type includes encrypted information that health authorities can access to notify and track potentially exposed people.
Since the start of the pandemic, several countries have sought to harness smartphones to fight the spread of COVID-19. Although several research groups in Canada quickly developed applications, the federal government has made slow progress towards implementation, in part due to concerns about privacy and data security.
On Friday, the privacy commissioners of Canada and Ontario released a joint statement saying they have completed their review of the app and are happy with its privacy protection. Both support the use of the app. However, the statement adds that due to uncertainty as to the effectiveness of the app, its use should be closely monitored and the app should be decommissioned if it does not meet its purpose.
“I think the approval by the Privacy Commissioner will go a long way in securing public buy-in,” said Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay and New Democratic Party spokesperson for protection. of privacy and ethics. Mr Angus was among those who had previously expressed concerns about the app due to privacy concerns.
Florian Kerschbaum, director of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute at the University of Waterloo, said based on the information available, the app appears to pass the bar for privacy and reliability.
“However,” he added, “the government is not doing the best possible job in terms of transparency. We are still looking for technical details. “
The privacy review may explain why the app is launching six weeks after it was first unveiled at a press briefing in June. In the meantime, federal officials said nearly 6,000 people have signed up to become beta testers of the app, which has resulted in a more user-friendly experience.
Prior to Friday’s post, Alberta was the only jurisdiction in Canada to operate a contact tracing app. This has proven to be a source of friction now that Ottawa is looking to roll out its own application nationwide. For example, in some cases, the Alberta app may only work if the app is open on a user’s iPhone.
Tom McMillan, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, said the province wanted to fix the issue, but Ottawa “has banned Apple from working with us to implement an update.”
He added that the province supports applications that are interoperable across the country, but needs more information about the federal application to do so. Currently, the province’s app has over 231,000 registered users.
Aside from privacy and coordination concerns, there is also the question of whether the app will meet its technical goals and correctly identify when two phones are close enough to each other for long enough for an owner to phone could infect another with COVID-19.
Petros Spachos, an engineering professor at the University of Guelph, said that because Bluetooth relies on the strength of radio signals between phones to estimate distance, the app could be misled when phones are obstructed or buried. in backpacks in a way that could affect the signal. force to a small but measurable degree.
“The problem is, we are talking about centimeters,” said Dr Spachos.
He added that he and his team have developed a fix that relies on machine learning so that a phone can determine when it can be partially hidden rather than in the direct line of sight of another nearby phone. The work was recently accepted for publication in the IEEE Systems Journal.
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