The federal government’s newly announced coronavirus contact-tracing app hasn’t yet been approved by the federal privacy watchdog but outside privacy and cybersecurity experts are already giving the digital tool an early thumbs up.
The app, announced Thursday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will be beta tested in Ontario starting on July 2 and is expected to launch nationally soon after. It’s meant to be an additional tool to help track down close contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus and its use will be “completely voluntary,” the prime minister said.
Trudeau said several times during his daily news conference that the government had worked with the federal privacy commissioner on the app, when asked by reporters about the watchdog’s involvement. But a statement from the commissioner’s office later in the day suggested that wasn’t the case.
The agency was “recently contacted by Health Canada” about the tracing app and has asked the government for more information before offering feedback, a spokesperson for the privacy commissioner’s office said in an email.
“We have requested and are awaiting necessary information and, until such time as we receive that information, we have not provided our recommendations to the government,” senior communications advisor Vito Pilieci said in an emailed statement.
“We are working diligently and responsibly to develop that advice.”
A news release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office after Trudeau’s news conference said the government is “engaging” with the commissioner’s office “to ensure that the app complies with the federal privacy requirements in its design and deployment.”
The tracing app will “undergo a thorough privacy assessment” and an external advisory council will be created to help ensure transparency and public interest during the app’s rollout, the release noted.
In May, the federal privacy watchdog and his provincial and territorial counterparts warned that using a digital app as a public health tool could have “significant implications” for Canadians’ privacy. The commissioners argued that the use of such apps must be voluntary and that consent from the public to use them must be “meaningful.”
While the federal privacy commissioner still has to weigh in, Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner told Global News she liked what she heard about the national app’s privacy features on Thursday.
Ann Cavoukian, now executive director of the Global Privacy and Security By Design Centre in Toronto, applauded how the tracing app is voluntary and anonymous and how it won’t store users’ personal or location information.
Rather than GPS tracking, the app will use Bluetooth technology provided by Apple and Google that records when users’ phones come into close contact — a factor Cavoukian said she was “delighted” to hear. She said she was briefed twice by Apple on how that technology worked because she “never takes anything at face value.”
“No information, zero personally identifiable data will be collected and you can turn it off at any time if you choose to in the future,” Cavoukian said. “So it’ll be a great tool for people who want to know if they’ve been exposed to someone who was COVID-19-positive, but they don’t want to have any personal information collected on them, which is what this framework does.
“The user controls all of the data that they want to share and the decision to share it or not to share it.”
Apple and Google, among others, actually refer to the tool as “exposure notification” because users won’t get “traced or tracked or surveilled,” Cavoukian added.
Federal officials broke down how the app would work on Thursday. If an individual tests positive for the coronavirus, a health-care professional will give that person a random, temporary code so they can upload their test status anonymously through the app to a national network.
Other app users whose devices have been in proximity to that patient’s phone will then be alerted that they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. That notification will encourage those other users to contact their local public health agencies, the prime minister said Thursday.
The anonymized codes associated with users’ phones will be stored in a federal database, officials said.
“There are no identifiers — of your phone, of your number, of your identity, of your address or even of your location — that is any part of this app,” Trudeau said.
An independent tech and cybersecurity expert also said the government appears to be ticking the boxes on privacy, but added the app will still likely raise questions about “trust and legitimacy.”
“Can we actually trust the federal government or government in general with these types of data? That’s an individual decision,” Ritesh Kotak said. “But the point here is that you actually have the ability to make that decision. It’s not being forced upon you.”
Kotak said he was happy to see the government pursued a national tracing app rather than leaving provinces to launch separate apps that wouldn’t be compatible with each other, which might cause issues if users travelled between provinces.
“It’s important that we don’t have a fragmented system, but somewhat of a joint system,” Kotak said.
Both Cavoukian and Kotak said they would personally download the app based on what they’ve heard so far.
App’s uptake will determine success, experts say
Privacy considerations aside, Kotak said the other big test that will determine the app’s success as a public health tool is how many people actually end up downloading and using it.
He noted that a phone’s Bluetooth setting can always be turned off and people can leave their phones at home.
Experts have said that about a 60 per cent adoption rate of the app is needed in order for it to be truly helpful for tracking the spread of the virus.
Contact tracing in general is crucial to limiting spread. With manual contact tracing, public health authorities have dedicated people call individuals who tested positive for the virus and track down any close contacts of theirs in the two weeks prior.
This will get more difficult as provinces continue to lift public health restrictions and people come into contact with more and more individuals, said Craig Jenne, an infectious disease expert and associate professor at the University of Calgary.
“When restrictions were tight, the number of people any one person contacted were probably pretty small,” he said.
“I think as infections now start appearing in people that are more or less going about their normal lives, going to work, going to a restaurant, going to a bar… the number of people they contact in the day is going to go up exponentially. So we need better tools for contact tracing as we basically have more contacts every day.”
Jenne argued “as many people as possible” need to partake in the tracing app for it to be effective.
Asked whether the national app is getting rolled out too late amid the provinces’ reopenings, Jenne said the app “definitely still has value moving forward” — especially with fears of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall.
The Calgary professor said a mandatory tracing app would work best from a purely public health perspective, but said he acknowledges the privacy concerns and limitations that have been raised in opposition to that idea.
This week, Germany launched an app using the Apple-Google Bluetooth framework and it was downloaded 6.5 million times within one day, Cavoukian said, noting that Germany is a leading country for privacy and data protection.
The results generated by the app’s pilot in Ontario will be “important,” according to Jenne.
“If we do get strong uptake, if we do get strong buy-in, this could be a very effective tool to deal with these small hidden clusters (of COVID-19 cases) as they appear,” he said.
“If, however, there is very little uptake and very few people, we don’t want to be relying on this (app) as a false sense of protection when clearly we don’t have enough people in the system to actually know who’s come in contact with who.
“So I think it could go both ways.”