Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is encouraging Canadians to download a new contact tracing app built on top of a free exposure notification solution developed by Shopify volunteers.
The application will first launch in Ontario early July, with a broader rollout across Canada expected “in the coming weeks.” Ontario is calling its version of the app COVID Alert. Trudeau emphasized that downloading the app will be entirely voluntary. Still, the more downloads it gets, he explained, the easier it will be to track the novel coronavirus that, as of June 18, has killed nearly 8,300 and infected 100,000 Canadians.
Downloading the app will be completely voluntary, but it will be most effective when as many people as possible have it. No personal information will be collected or shared, and it will use Bluetooth API so no location services need to be used. Your privacy will be respected.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) June 18, 2020
“No personal information will be collected or shared, and it will use Bluetooth API so no location services need to be used. Your privacy will be respected,” Trudeau tweeted Thursday afternoon.
The new app – it’s unclear if the app will also be called COVID Alert outside of Ontario – is built on top of COVID Shield, an exposure notification solution built by Shopify volunteers. COVID Shield is based on the exposure notification technology provided by Apple and Google. Experts have suggested this decentralized approach to contact tracing is currently the most privacy-preserving approach to contact tracing. The app’s announcement today got the nod of approval from Ann Cavoukian, who has long emphasized the importance of a decentralized model.
“The Apple-Google framework, which the app will be based upon, has Privacy by Design embedded throughout: no personal information nor geolocation data is collected or retained. Users retain total control, which is what privacy is all about!” Cavoukian tweeted.
Matteo Guinci, strategic communications and media advisor from Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, said the COVID Alert doesn’t send “any data to any Government of Ontario server.”
“In order to ensure that a positive diagnosis is legitimate, people will access the Ontario COVID-19 lab results viewer – an online method of receiving one’s test result to retrieve a unique code that the individual will enter into the app voluntarily to notify others of exposure. The lab results viewer is not a part of, or connected to, the COVID Alert app,” Guinci wrote in an email.
The app is meant to supplement contact tracing efforts already in place by public health authorities, but more importantly, reduce the amount of time it takes to notify people who have been potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19. Users downloading the app can expect push notifications, not phone calls, said Sarah Tatsis, vice-president of advanced technology development labs for BlackBerry. The security firm is lending its expertise to help review the app during the rollout.
We commend the Governments of Canada and Ontario for their collaboration on the COVID-19 exposure application announced today. We’re honored to partner with our government leaders in this public health effort – by providing our security and privacy expertise to review the app.
— BlackBerry (@BlackBerry) June 18, 2020
“It’s a way for people to get notified about possible exposure [to the virus], but then it’s really up to them to take other measures, like getting tested or quarantining themselves,” Tatsis explained.
In the U.S., where Software-as-a-Service firm HealthSpace Data Systems has been distributing its centralized automated contact tracing solution to various local governments, the results have been instant, according to its chief executive officer Silas Garrison.
In recent months, the U.S-based SaaS company, which also has an office in Canada, has extended its HSCloud Suite product – HealthSpace’s cloud-based permit creation and billing management solution – and its My Health Department platform to serve as an automated COVID-19 contact tracing platform.
The two software solutions help health agencies replace the manual process of calling each individual contact with an automated system that sends out a unique and secure link via text message and an email with a daily questionnaire for each of the contacts being traced. The questionnaire allows the contact to enter their symptoms, temperature and a variety of other information as directed by each agency.
“Grant County Washington, for example, once we got in there, took its data and uploaded it to our system, and essentially just took the out-of-the-box setup. Within 24 hours they were sending text messages left and right because they were so far behind on their cold calling,” explained Garrison.
Grant County Health Department in Washington had 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 before HealthSpace entered the picture. Within two weeks of adopting the SaaS company’s solution, the county hit 1,000 confirmed cases, according to Garrison. HealthSpace has also deployed its contact tracing solution with the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Privacy is core to its engagements with health authorities in the U.S., Garrison added. Grant County Health and other clients, he said, were adamant about not tracking location data.
“Once you start giving extra information that is not pertinent to the disease or tracking the disease, people start to get squeamish,” he said.
Contact tracing apps like COVID Alert can also fail if the adoption rate is low. Garrison said it’s tough trying to convince millions of people to download it.
“Most people already have too many apps that they’re looking to get rid of anyway. And now you’re being asked by the government to download another app on the off chance that you might come into contact with someone?”
Recent reports have cited research that says the epidemic could be stopped if 60 per cent of the population adopts a contact tracing app, but even if we fall short of that, every two users of the app could prevent one additional infection. But since no nation has reached such levels, many have criticized “exposure notification” technologies as essentially worthless. Facebook’s app, for comparison, has an adoption rate of 68.6 per cent after years of availability. TechnologyReview.com recently reported that the Oxford researchers who produced the study have been misunderstood.
“There’s been a lot of misreporting around efficacy and uptake … suggesting that the app only works at 60 per cent —which is not the case,” Andrea Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Oxford team, told the website. In fact, she says, contact tracing apps “have a protective effect” at “much lower levels.”
A unified approach matters
David Masson, director of enterprise security at Darktrace, said it makes sense for the federal government to spearhead the rollout of a contact tracing app.
“In Canada, a unified approach to contact tracing led by the federal government, rather than by the individual provinces and territories, will relieve the provinces and territories of some legal and financial ramifications. A unified effort would also ensure a more collaborative process for building in security and privacy controls, and it would be more efficient for decision making. As the Federal Government makes declared decisions about the app and its development, security needs to remain a priority. A centralized approach, however, needs to come with caveats and protections,” Masson wrote in a statement to IT World Canada. “If it is the federal government ensuring that a sick person remains isolated and enforcing quarantine, there will be privacy trade-offs. We must be prepared for the future: what should we do with the data after this crisis is finally said and done? Sunset clauses should be put in place to assure the Canadian public that the highest consideration will be taken and that there will be transparency about what happens once the data is no longer needed.”