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Tech companies are proposing Canada use phone apps to track spread of coronavirus

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A number of companies and researchers in Canada are in talks with or have put forward proposals to various levels of government to roll out apps that would use location or Bluetooth data to track people who may have come into contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19

A range of tracking apps and tools have been implemented in other countries around the world with the goal of tracing and slowing the spread of the virus, with varying degrees of transparency and oversight. Though privacy experts say the pandemic may warrant some extraordinary measures, they argue that such apps must be balanced against privacy considerations.

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One Toronto-based location analytics company is proposing an app similar to one used by the Singaporean government called “TraceTogether” that uses bluetooth technology to track nearby phones. If someone there tests positive for COVID-19, they can opt-in to have their information provided to the Ministry of Health, which then alerts any contacts that they might have come into close proximity with the infected person. 

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“They built an app that leverages Bluetooth as opposed to GPS — fundamentally very different — collected as few [pieces of] information as possible, stored a lot of that on the device itself and encrypted it,” Dilshan Kathriarachchi, chief technology officer of EQ Works, told Global News’ Wait, There’s More podcast. 

He said his company has made submissions through requests for proposals by the federal and Ontario provincial governments for its app, which would do something similar. 

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The moment someone gets a positive diagnosis of COVID-19, the government gives them a PIN, that person opts into giving their information to the Singaporean Ministry of Health, which then decides whether to disseminate that information to others with that app who might have been in contact with that person, Kathriarachchi explained. If someone with the app doesn’t come into contact with someone with COVID-19, data older than 21 days will apparently be deleted.

“All that information being on the phone, I think, is fundamentally different than what other countries have done, which is a great model to follow.”

Singapore has been praised for its response to COVID-19, as the city-state of around five million people has around 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and three deaths, and public spaces such as schools and restaurants have remained open. 

Kathriarachchi was not authorized to disclose the name of the app nor the partners with whom his company is working on its development. Any app like this would require various approvals before becoming available for members of the public to download. 

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Governments in Canada have yet to officially use phone data to trace and track people who may be infected with COVID-19 — Toronto Mayor John Tory retracted claims he made last week that the city was collecting cellphone location data for this purpose. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “all options are on the table” in response to a question last week about whether the government was using data from telecom companies to determine whether people were abiding by self-isolation rules. 

At least two other projects, both out of Quebec, are being proposed in Canada that would use the phone location data of someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 to notify other people who may have come into contact with that person. 

Like the app used in Singapore, these would rely on information provided by health agencies. Unlike the app used in Singapore and the one being proposed by EQ Works, they would use GPS data, whereas Kathriarachchi’s would use Bluetooth, which, in this case, is a short-distance signal between phones and does not specify location.

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The first proposal is an app being created by the Mila research centre at the University of Montreal and McGill University. Through the app, your phone would use GPS data to record people you might come into contact with as you do things like go to the grocery store or other public outings. 

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Valerie Pisano, president and CEO of Mila, told the Hill Times the goal of the app is to “make sure that when someone is positively diagnosed, the other individuals, whether they’re known or unknown, who’ve been in contact with that person, get a signal and know they’re at risk.” 

Pisano added that GPS location information would not be shared with health authorities, and individuals would be able to choose whether their diagnosis is shared through the app.

Another app in the works is by a Quebec engineer and would use GPS to track the locations of the phone, according to the Hill Times. 

It would use a PIN number that corresponds to someone’s COVID-19 case ID used by health authorties, which would share that information with a central database of people who are infected. That app would compare areas of potential spread of the virus with the location of the patient’s phone, and if there’s a match, other people located in that area could be notified through the app, or that information would be shared with health authorities so that they could contact people who may have been exposed. 

READ MORE: Countries opt for phone tracking amid coronavirus — should Canada?

A spokesperson for the federal privacy commissioner, which enforces privacy laws and how federal institutions and certain businesses handle personal information, said in an email: “Our office has had some discussions about a few applications with the federal government related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“The urgency of limiting the spread of the virus is understandably a significant challenge for government and public health authorities, who are looking for ways to leverage personal information and ‘Big Data’ to contain and gain insights about the novel virus and the global threat it presents,” the spokesperson wrote. 

“In times of crisis, the laws can be applied flexibly and contextually, but they must still apply. Because privacy is a fundamental human right, it is very important in our democratic country based on the rule of law that its basic principles continue to operate.”

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Civil liberties advocates say they will be monitoring the use of any such app if they are approved for use, including whether they involve location or Bluetooth tracking.

Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Privacy, Surveillance, and Technology Project, said in a phone interview that there are serious privacy implications for the use of these apps, including by government officials.  

“Location data is personal and sensitive data, and contact tracing is a necessary process for public health. But also an intrusive process,” she said. “So when you put that onto a technological platform, it creates additional issues, additional potentials for intrusion and ways that things could go wrong basically for the citizen.”

When it comes to location-tracking apps, McPhail said she’s not keen on apps that are going to use GPS “because it’s imprecise for this kind of contact tracing and very leaky.” 

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When it comes to Bluetooth-based apps, she said they are “both more secure and potentially more effective from a locational point of view.”

But in general, McPhail questions the overall usefulness of these apps and says she will continue to monitor the situation. 

“We’re going to look for justifications around necessity and proportionality,” she said. “We’re going to be looking for the rationale that the app is actually going to be fit for purpose, that it’s going to do what it’s being claimed to do in a way that’s fundamentally necessary in a public health crisis.”