Canada’s officially-sanctioned national COVID-19 exposure notification mobile app will be released for beta testing in Ontario on July 2.
However, an expert warns the goal of widespread adoption when the final version is released will fail unless the country’s leaders are regularly upfront about its capabilities.
“If we want this app successful we need our Prime Minister, we need our Premiers to constantly update the public on what’s happening with the deployment,” Plinio Morita, director of the University of Waterloo’s Ubiquitous Health Technology Labi(UbiLab), which designs and evaluates health-related technology and data collection, told a webinar on Friday.
“We can’t have the app just be announced and made available to the public and then our politicians going silent. We need to have a constant conversation with the public so they are educated,” he said.
That includes third-party evaluations of the app’s security and privacy to reassure Canadians.
On the other hand, looking around the world at the contract tracing or exposure notification apps deployed so far “there’s still very little evidence,” they help slow the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
Still, he noted, to gain widespread adoption, the code behind the app has to be available for inspection by experts, and leaders have to showcase the benefits of the application regularly.
The good news is that the code for the COVID Alert app, developed by the federal government’s Canada Design Lab, the Ontario Digital Service and Shopify is available on GitHub. Morita has seen it and says the code so far seems well designed.
If the app changes in a way he doesn’t like, “I’ll be the first to delete it,” he added.
Morita was one of a panel on contact tracing apps hosted by the University of Waterloo’s Defence and Security Foresight Group.
Others were moderator Florian Kerschbaum, director of the UW’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute; Bessma Momani, UW professor of international relations and member of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute’s board; and Douglas Stebila, associate professor of cryptography at UW.
Stebila has also looked at the code and likes that it’s publicly available so far. But he also wants to see after the app is released the same kind of detailed numbers governments post daily on the spread of numbers — in this case, the number of app downloads, how many people were notified after an app user tests positive, and if those notified actually contact their doctors for follow-up.
It’s almost two months since Alberta’s app was released and it’s hard to get that kind of data, Stebila said.
The Canadian app, based on a framework created by Apple and Google, is a decentralized model that doesn’t collect location data. Most of the other apps released around the world so far use a centralized model that uploads data, including some location data, directly or indirectly to a health authority. Those apps “have burned a lot of goodwill” towards the idea of a tracing app helpful to support manual tracing, he said.
Still, Stebila, Moriata and Kerschbaum said they will download Canadian the app.
Momani was the skeptic on the panel. In Iceland and South Korea, residents have a lot of trust in their governments, she said, but adoption of apps there hasn’t gone over 30 per cent. She urged the country to have a national debate before the app is released. “This is an opportunity for a public debate, for bringing in many different disciplines to discuss what are the potential risks.” What will be the impact of the app on minorities, she wondered, will it end up stigmatizing certain neighbourhoods that have high COVID infection rates?
“I don’t see a lot of upsides,” she said about the app. “I really feel the analog (manual tracing) system works. We don’t have to digitize everything.”
With the high unemployment rate now, she added, there will be no shortage of people to hire as contact tracers.
Of the four on the panel, Momani was the only one who won’t download the Canadian app when it’s released.