|Residents of Ontario can now download a new app that can tell them whether they have been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 over the previous two weeks. While government officials say the goal is to make what is being called the COVID Alert contact notification app available across the country, they can’t state yet when it will be available outside Ontario. They also haven’t explained why only one province has agreed to adopt what was supposed to be a national app.
COVID Alert is the federal government’s latest move in the battle to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as Canada’s economy gradually reopens. Canadians can download the app to their mobile phones, which will use Bluetooth technology to exchange signals with nearby phones. If someone tests positive for COVID, their public health authority will give them a one-time key to enter into the app. The app will then send out notices to every phone that has been within two metres of the infected person’s phone for at least 15 minutes over the previous 14 days — as long as those other phones also carry the app. Those who receive a notification will receive instructions on what to do next.
Officials say that the app will become more effective as more people download it — and they stress that it’s a notification app, not a contact-tracing app. “I want to be clear — this app isn’t mandatory,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has downloaded the app. Other provinces, such as New Brunswick, have worked to develop their own apps. Trudeau said the federal government is close to working out an agreement with the Atlantic provinces to integrate their systems with the app. The federal government is also talking with other provinces and territories but the government did not indicate when other provinces might adopt the app.
While anyone across Canada can download the app, they will receive alerts only if they have been near someone who has tested positive in a province that has integrated the app with its testing system, and who has downloaded the app. While the Android version requires users to turn on their location settings, officials maintain the app will not know a user’s location, name or address. It also won’t track exactly when the user was near someone who tested positive, or whether they are currently near someone who has tested positive. For users of Apple devices, the app works on the iOS 13.5 operating system and newer systems. That means the app might not work on some older smartphones, and some users might have to upgrade their operating systems.
Officials said the government has been working with federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien’s office to address any privacy concerns. Therrien endorsed the app on Friday, saying that he plans to download it himself. “Canadians can opt to use this technology, knowing it includes very significant privacy protections,” he wrote in a statement. Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Patricia Kosseim agreed, although both said their endorsements are conditioned on the app’s use being voluntary and the government continuing to monitor it.