Coronavirus contact tracing app to launch nationally in early July

A smartphone app developed to help with coronavirus contact-tracing efforts will be launched nationally in early July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday.

Coronavirus contact tracing app to launch nationally in early July

Trudeau said the app, which will be piloted in Ontario, will notify users if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and its use will be “completely voluntary” but he argued the digital tool will be “most effective” if as many people as possible download and use it.

“At no time will personal information be collected and shared, and no location services will be used,” the prime minister said. “The privacy of Canadians will be fully respected.”

Trudeau’s update came as Canada’s COVID-19 count surpassed 100,000 known cases and about four weeks after he said the federal government was reviewing several smartphone apps and gearing up to “recommend strongly” a particular app.

Contact tracing is considered crucial to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health authorities have had dedicated people call individuals who tested positive for the virus and track down any close contacts of theirs in the two weeks prior.

Having one app available across the country will provide a “layer of additional effort” to manual contact tracing, Trudeau said on Thursday. He said there are more than 30 million smartphones in Canada that are compatible with the app.

The federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners — as well as other privacy experts — had previously warned that using a digital app as public health tool could have “significant implications” for Canadians’ privacy. The commissioners also called for voluntary use of the apps to build “public trust.”

Trudeau confirmed use of the nationwide app will be voluntary and said it “functions entirely on an anonymized basis.”

If an individual tests positive for the coronavirus, a health-care professional will give that person a randomized, temporary code so they can upload their test status anonymously to a national network.

Other app users whose devices have been in proximity to the phone belonging to the person with the coronavirus will then be alerted that they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. That notification will encourage those other people to reach out to their local public health authorities, according to Trudeau.

Trudeau said the nationwide app has been developed in partnership with Shopify volunteers, BlackBerry, the government of Ontario and the Canadian Digital Service, a federal agency.

The prime minister told reporters several times that the government had worked with Canada’s privacy commissioner on the app as well. But a statement from the commissioner’s office later Thursday said Health Canada had “recently” contacted them about the app and the office is waiting to receive more information about the tool before issuing any recommendations to the government.

The prime minister described the tool as “super simple and “super secure.”

“It’s something that you can just download and forget about,” he said. “This is an approach that we are confident is going to make a big difference.”

However, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said it will be up to each province and territory, and their local public health authorities, to decide whether or not they want to partake in the national app.

While the app’s interface would be managed by the participating province, the Canadian Digital Service will control the “secure” national database that will hold all the randomized codes, according to federal officials.

“I think we all appreciate that having a national app in a country where Canadians do travel could be really, really helpful. And so we hope we’ll get to a point where all the provinces and territories are working with us on this,” Freeland said.

The province of Alberta already launched and is using its own app, called ABTraceTogether.

App to launch in Ontario on July 2

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who in early May called for a national contact-tracing strategy, provided some more details about how the app, named COVID Shield, will roll out in that province.

The application is expected to launch in Ontario on July 2 and can be downloaded on both Android and iPhone devices for free.

According to materials provided by the Ontario government, the app will use Bluetooth to share the anonymous and randomly generated codes with nearby app users.

The app won’t collect any personal data or personal health information and it won’t collect or track GPS location data, according to the province. The app also “automatically destroys all anonymized data” it contains after 14 days, the provincial government’s handout said.

Ontario said it’s also planning to double its contact-tracing workforce to more than 4,000 workers ahead of a possible second wave of COVID-19 later this year.

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