Quebec says no to Canada’s COVID-19 exposure notification app

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The app called COVID Alert is now available from Google Play (above) and Apple stores

Quebec has refused to adopt the federally-approved COVID Alert exposure notification app, leaving plans for a national app that helps check the spread of the virus in limbo.

“We would prefer a Quebec company, but I don’t think this is our main argument,” Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday, according to CBC News.

Following legislative hearings earlier in the month, he says there is a lack of broad support for such an app in the province, due to privacy concerns. “Maybe in six months we will come to another decision,” he added.

CBC also quoted Éric Caire, Quebec’s minister responsible for digital transformation, as saying the government is interested in a made-in-Quebec app, and that it’s also running tests on the federal app to ensure its security.

The app is based on code created by Ottawa e-commerce platform Shopify and with the help of federal developers. It uses the Apple-Google framework that doesn’t collect personal information. Apps using this framework are called exposure notification apps and not contact tracing apps because they don’t trace users. Instead, their use is limited to notifying users that an unnamed person they have been near for a prolonged time recently has tested positively for the virus. Those notified have the option of seeing a doctor or ignoring the warning.

There were several candidates for a federally-approved app, including one from Quebec. The federal government has insisted on approving one app so there will be compatibility across the country.

Initially, COVID Alert has been released in Ontario and has been downloaded over two million times. Alberta, which released its own app on a different and incompatible platform, earlier this month agreed to also adopt the COVID Alert app, although the timing has not been announced.

Other provinces, however, are still watching the app’s use in Ontario and whether it is useful.

One of those who testified at the provincial hearing was Benoit Dupont, scientific director of Serene-risc, a Montreal-based cybersecurity information and education network, who gave evidence about the lack of effectiveness of COVID apps in other countries. “Even if there is a high rate of downloads a lot of people in countries such as France and Australia are not active users of the apps,” he said in an interview this morning summarizing his testimony. “So the adoption rate is not enough to make the apps successful. You have to make sure people use the apps on a regular basis. The data we have now suggests one-quarter of people don’t use it after they have downloaded it. So you end up with a very limited base [of users].” And there is limited evidence COVID apps help identify virus victims, he added. He also noted the Australian state of Victoria has abandoned the use of the app.

According to an Aug. 4 Australian news report, health researchers initially stopped use app data because there was low adoption and because traditional manual contact tracing identified virus victims anyway. However, the report says authorities have since resumed using app data. The Australian app is not based on the Apple-Google framework.

“I think that the Quebec government was happy to adopt the Canada app if it was demonstrated to be useful,” Dupont also said in the interview. “The problem is weighing the benefits of the cost with privacy … If the analysis of apps, in general, had been positive I think the Quebec government would have adopted the federal app.”

News reports quoted federal officials as being baffled by Quebec’s decision. The Globe and Mail quoted Thierry Belair, director of communications for federal health minister Patty Hajdu saying, “This app does not track the location of users and does not collect any personally identifiable information. It’s also an additional tool we can use as we prepare for a possible increase in cases this fall. So why not make it available now in Quebec?”

Both the federal and Ontario privacy commissioners have endorsed the app, as well as former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

The Globe quoted Premier Legault telling reporters that well-founded or not many Quebecers are concerned about their privacy if using the app. He said all three provincial opposition parties oppose adopting the federal app.

 

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