Canadian governments are planning to approve COVID-19 mobile contact tracing apps to help health authorities track the spread of the infectious disease. However, two recent surveys offer conflicting numbers on whether residents here want the apps to be voluntary or mandatory.

The issue is crucial: Health experts say wide adoption of an app — perhaps as much as 50 per cent of the population — is needed for it to be useful.

In the most recent survey, released this morning by KPMG Canada, 55 per cent of respondents said digital contact tracing should be voluntary, citing privacy concerns and potential abuse of civil liberties. Two-thirds of respondents said they wouldn’t download such an app, calling it still “too invasive.”

Yet 57 per cent of respondents don’t believe such an app would be effective unless it is mandatory.

On the other hand, a survey commissioned by three Canadian Senators released last week found 65 per cent of respondents support the mandatory use of contact tracing apps.

However, in an interview one of those senators acknowledged the question on mandatory/voluntary adoption may not have been neutral. And Canadian privacy expert Ann Cavoukian said the Senate survey question “has no validity.” (See below for more detail)

Most privacy experts around the world say COVID contact tracing apps must be voluntary to get widespread adoption. That’s the position of federal and provincial privacy commissioners as part of a statement of principles they urge governments here follow on tracing apps. Alberta, the first Canadian jurisdiction to release an app, has made its adoption voluntary. But some privacy experts worry that if adoption is low a government will be tempted to make it mandatory.

Despite Alberta jumping the gun, federal and provincial officials are looking at about a dozen proposed apps for approval.

Related:

Skepticism from a Canadian panel

A number of contact tracing apps are being developed around the world, some — like Alberta’s — based on one of the earliest developed by Singapore. Broadly speaking, tracing apps use Bluetooth to capture encrypted ID signals from closeby mobile devices that also have an app, usually with a time limiter. (For example, Alberta’s app won’t obtain an ID number unless a person is nearby another for a total of 15 minutes over 24 hours). Depending on the app, each mobile device holds a list of contacts for a set number of days.

Depending on the app, one of two things happens if a person tests positive for COVID-19: Either the list of encrypted digital IDs is uploaded by the user so a health authority can notify and trace those who have been in contact with the victim, or the app transmits an alert directly to the apps of those on the list for those users to see. Either way, recipients of warnings would be expected to take appropriate steps, such as notify their doctors, monitor their health or take a COVID-19 test.

KPMG Canada surveyed 2,000 Canadians online between May 7 and 12. 

Among the highlights:

  • 62 per cent of respondents are in favour of letting the government use location tracking to send phone alerts to people who have come into contact with a person infected by COVID-19;
  • 82 per cent would be more comfortable with an app run by the health system that shows aggregate community “hot spots” for COVID-19 so they can make their own decisions about their health;
  • 65 per cent say any contact-tracing program needs to be administered by an independent body from the provincial or federal government.

“It’s clear that Canadians understand that contact-tracing apps are effective if participation is high, but the design of such apps must limit threats to privacy as most people aren’t comfortable letting the government have free rein to track their phones,” Sylvia Kingsmill, partner and national digital privacy leader for KPMG, said in a statement. “To make this work, governments will need to be completely transparent on how data will be collected, stored, erased, and managed – it’s about trust.

“There should be clarity about the circumstances under which that data will be shared, now and in the future. To this end, policies should be implemented and enforced to prevent misuse and/or abuse of the data to provide assurances to the public that principles of accountability and data minimization are being respected.”

The Senate’s online survey of 1,530 respondents was commissioned by Senators Colin Deacon, Donna Dasko and Rosemary Moodie and conducted between May 2 and May 4.

Among the findings:

  • In the absence of a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, 90 per cent of respondents believe that it will be necessary to continue contact tracing in general (that may or may not include an app).
  • 80 per cent of respondents support the use of mobile device data by public health officials to notify those who have
    been close to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
  • 87 per cent of respondents believe contact tracing apps should trigger testing of themselves and others.
  • If assured that their data was kept confidential, large numbers of Canadians would share information from contact tracing apps with their physician (96 per cent), their family (95 per cent), public health officials (91 per cent) and health researchers (87 per cent). Fewer would share with employers and co-workers (75 per cent), other government officials (73 per cent), law enforcement (68 per cent), and social media platforms (35 per cent).
  • 65 per cent of respondents support the mandatory use of contact tracing apps.

[UPDATE, May 14, 3:30 pm EST]: In an interview this afternoon, Senator Colin Deacon acknowledged the question on mandatory/voluntary use of an app may not have been fair. The question was: “In some countries the installation of this app is mandatory. How supportive would you be for this to be the case in Canada.” Twenty-three per cent were very supportive and 42 per cent were somewhat supportive.

Asked if he thought that was a loaded question, Deacon said “potentially it is … I don’t know that it does. It asks, ‘What are your thoughts.'”

When it was suggested a neutral question would be ‘Should adoption be mandatory or voluntary,’ Deacon said, “That’s a fair point.”

Some experts object to the use of a mobile contact tracing app on privacy grounds, saying any system that collects personal data puts a user at risk. However, Deacon said the use of a contact tracing app has to be looked at as an aid to COVID-19 infection control. He said any approved app must protect privacy first. But, he added, many critics use smartphones and social media and manage access to their data. “As long as the [contact] data doesn’t leave your phone” except to notify people they should get tested “I don’t see how that is any more invasive” than people who test positive for the virus have to tell health authorities who they have recently been in close contact, with, he said.

“Alongside this strong support for the use of contact tracing apps, we do find concerns about personal privacy and the security of personal data,” said a report that analyzed the Senate survey findings. “Accordingly, any roll-out of an app(s) will require robust privacy protection to be in place in a manner that earns the support of potential users of the app.”

A contact tracing app could help health authorities who do manual contact tracing he said. It’s “unsustainable” to have large numbers of Canadians at home and not working because of the virus.

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian denounced the Senate survey mandatory adoption question. “It’s crazy,” she said in an interview. “It’s so skewed. To me this [question and result] has no validity … It creates the myth that the app is going to be mandatory,”

To her, the response to the KPMG Canada survey question is more credible.

Asked how an app should be introduced in Canada, Cavoukian urged governments to follow the Apple/Google framework, which doesn’t send the mobile IDs gathered by an app to health authorities for decryption and follow-up with individuals. Instead, when a user tests positive for COVID-19 they instruct the app to send a warning direct to those with a similar app whose mobile ID has been connected. That’s why Apple and Google have recently changed the description of their framework from a contact tracing app to “exposure notification,” she said.

(This story has been updated from the original by adding comments by Senator Colin Deacon and Ann Cavoukian)