Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced today that a contact tracing app will soon be available to test for COVID-19. The app, which will be rolled out in Ontario first and eventually across the country, will notify users if they’ve been exposed to the virus.
Trudeau said he hopes Canadians will download a new app on their cellphones, as “it will be most effective when as many people as possible have it.”
“As we start to loosen some restrictions, we also have to strengthen other measures so that we don’t lose the progress we’ve made. As some people start heading back to work, testing and contact tracing is crucial,” he said at his daily briefing on June 18.
Trudeau stressed that use of the app, which is called COVID Alert, “will be completely voluntary. It will be up to individual Canadians to decide whether to download the app or not.”
He also said the federal privacy commissioner has been involved in developing the app and an emphasis has been put on privacy protection.
“At no time will personal information be collected or shared, and no location services will be used. The privacy of Canadians will be fully respected,” he said.
A government news release explains that those who test positive can upload their results to the app anonymously using a code issued by a health-care provider.
As many countries slowly emerge from lockdowns while trying to avoid a second wave of infections, experts say detecting new cases quickly is key to combating fresh clusters.
Taiwan and South Korea are examples of countries that have used location-tracking capabilities in smartphones to great effectiveness. The European Data Protection Supervisor has called for a pan-European mobile app to track the spread of the virus, as an improvement over the hodge-podge of apps currently used in various EU countries.
In Canada, Alberta has been using its own app, ABTraceTogether, to trace COVID-19 infections for nearly two months now.
Meanwhile, Germany launched a virus-tracing app on June 16 that officials say is so secure even government ministers can use it.
But governments in Europe have run into legal and cultural hurdles trying to reconcile the need for effective tracing with the continent’s strict data privacy standards. It also recalls Germany’s own history of dictatorships. Both the Nazis and East Germany’s communist regime amassed vast amounts of information to persecute dissidents and undesirables.
“Tracking where a person is in real-time, that does remind us of China and its surveillance system,” said Frederick Richter, who heads the independent Foundation for Data Protection.
Joanna Baron, the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, points out that laws already in place set certain limits on what governments can do in this context.
“In ‘peacetime,’ data protection laws limit circumstances in which governmental bodies can collect personally identifiable information,” she said.
Additionally, Baron notes that private sector data-protection laws also impose limits on organizations sharing data with governments, with the exceptions being emergencies and whether a specific law permits the data-sharing.
“On its face, such data-sharing without individual consent violates the Charter’s guarantee in section 8 against ‘unreasonable search-and-seizure,’” she said.
Barry Sookman, a lawyer who has specialized in these areas and written widely on the issue of technology and surveillance, notes that there’s “a general consensus that freedoms we enjoy as Canadians may be inhibited where exists justifiable reasons.”
“However, to be justified, the intrusion into our civil liberties must pass a series of tests including that it must be minimally impairing and that the impairments are outweighed by the social benefits,” he said. “I believe that the same kinds of tests which are at the heart of our Charter rights should be applied in these emergency situations.”
But he notes that, from looking at countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, the measures employed have been proven effective when it comes to identifying infected contacts.
“We should remember that these applications supplement procedures that have been used and are still being used in dealing with this and other epidemics—they just do it more efficiently,” he said.
“There are issues with how the data is gathered, but those are important architectural choices that can be used to limit invasion of privacy.”
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press. With reporting by Shane Miller.