TORONTO — A new mobile app will notify Canadians if they’ve come in contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, government officials said Thursday.
The app will launch in Ontario around July 2 and then roll out to other provinces and territories throughout the summer.
“I want to stress that this app will be completely voluntary. It will be up to Canadians to decide whether to download the app or not,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at his daily press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa.
“But the app will be most effective when as many people as possible have it.”
He called it an “extra layer of protection” that will work with all the other public health measures already in effect.
Health officials will help users update their status if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Ontario government officials told reporters at a background briefing.
COVID-positive users will get a code to confirm their diagnosis in the app, so people can’t self-diagnose or falsely enter a positive diagnosis.
The app will use Bluetooth to detect when two phones are close to each other, rather than using GPS location data to track a user’s movements. Officials said they are still working out exactly how close two users’ phones must be in proximity to each other, and for how long, in order to send a notification if one has a positive diagnosis.
Alberta has been testing a similar contact tracing app since May. It was downloaded by about 100,000 people in its first weekend.
The new app was developed by the Ontario Digital Service using open source code from Ottawa-based tech company Shopify. Volunteers at BlackBerry also helped develop the app, officials said.
“We face an invisible enemy,” Premier Doug Ford said at his daily news conference in Toronto. “But if we test, we can find it. If we trace, we can track it. And if we can have those two things, we can contain it.”
The app will be significantly faster than the current process, Ontario officials said.
Right now, public health officials interview people who test positive for COVID-19 and then manually notify every person they can remember having contact with for fourteen days prior.
The new system will let someone enter the names of the people they have contact with as soon as they get their diagnosis.
It will also solve a specific problem that health officials are running into — people can’t remember all the places they’ve gone and people they’ve seen days and weeks later, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said at Ford’s press conference.
Both Trudeau and Ford said privacy concerns were taken into consideration.
“It is extremely important that we make sure that Canadians’ privacy is protected, not just for their sake but because we know that uptake of this app won’t be there if people are worried for their privacy,” Trudeau said.
He added that the federal privacy commissioner was consulted about the app.
Bluetooth vs. GPS location data
One expert called the contact tracing app a positive step and said the use of Bluetooth rather than GPS location data is key.
“Bluetooth technology certainly reduces the risks around privacy and security specifically,” Sumit Bhatia, the director of communications and knowledge mobilization at Ryerson University’s Cybersecure Catalyst, told HuffPost Canada.
“When you’re collecting location-based data, you have access to people’s home addresses and their workplaces and their routines and where they’re travelling back and forth from and their shopping patterns,” Bhatia said.
Location data is also more vulnerable to hackers and leaks, he said.
Bhatia said there are still issues the government needs to work out. In particular, there’s the risk that the app will leave out people who don’t have a cell phone or that store owners and landlords will try to force people to use the app.
“Don’t let people around you bully you into the use of it.”
There were no major costs to create the app, government officials said, because it was made by government staff and volunteers at Shopify and BlackBerry.
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