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New COVID-19 notification app rolls out in Ontario

Residents of Ontario can now download a new app that can tell them whether they have been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 over the previous two weeks.

But while government officials say the goal is to make the COVID Alert contact notification app available across the country and are in talks with other provinces, they can’t state yet when it will be available outside Ontario. The Android version can be found here.

They also haven’t explained why only one province has agreed to adopt what was supposed to be a national app.

COVID Alert is the federal government’s latest move in the battle to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as Canada’s economy gradually reopens. Here’s how it works:

  • You start by downloading the app to your smartphone.
  • That will allow the phone to use Bluetooth technology to exchange signals with nearby phones.
  • If someone tests positive for COVID, their public health authority will give them a one-time key to enter into the app.
  • The app will then send out notices to every phone that has been within two metres of the infected person’s phone for at least 15 minutes over the previous 14 days — as long as those other phones also carry the app.
  • Those who receive a notification will receive instructions on what to do next.

Officials say that the app will become more effective as more people download it — and they stress that it’s a notification app, not a contact-tracing app.

App is voluntary

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has downloaded the app.

“I want to be clear — this app isn’t mandatory,” he told reporters. “It’s completely voluntary to download and to use.”

Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains new COVID Alert app

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa how the new federal COVID app will warn Canadians if they have been near someone who has tested positive for the virus. 2:32

Other provinces, such as New Brunswick, have worked to develop their own apps. Alberta launched a contact tracing app called ABTraceTogether on May 1.

Trudeau said the federal government is close to working out an agreement with the Atlantic provinces to integrate their systems with the app. The federal government says it is also talking with other provinces and territories about integrating their systems but hasn’t indicated when other provinces might adopt the app.

While anyone across Canada can download the app, they will receive alerts only if they have been near someone who has tested positive in a province that has integrated the app with its testing system, and who has downloaded the app.

While the Android version requires users to turn on their location settings, officials maintain the app will not know a user’s location, name or address. It also won’t track exactly when the user was near someone who tested positive, or whether they are currently near someone who has tested positive.

For users of Apple devices, the app works on the iOS 13.5 operating system and newer systems. That means the app might not work on some older smartphones, and some users might have to upgrade their operating systems or purchase new phones. Several readers contacted CBC News Friday to say they were unable to download the app on an iPhone 5 or iPhone 6.

Officials said the government has been working with federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien’s office to address any privacy concerns.

Therrien endorsed the app on Friday, saying that he plans to download it himself. 

“Canadians can opt to use this technology, knowing it includes very significant privacy protections,” he wrote in a statement.

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Patricia Kosseim agreed, saying her office’s review found strong measures to protect privacy.

“I support the use of exposure notification technology to help control the spread of COVID-19, provided it is used in the way it’s been designed to respect the privacy of Ontarians,” said Kosseim. “This app will only work if people trust their personal information will be protected and choose to use the technology.”

Therrien and Kosseim said, however, that their endorsements are conditioned on the app’s use being voluntary and the government continuing to monitor it.

Cybersecurity expert Steve Waterhouse said Canada joins about 40 countries around the world that have launched apps to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

He said Canada’s Bluetooth-based app is less invasive than the GPS-based tracking apps some other countries have adopted.

“It is designed to simply detect how close we are to another device and then report if we have been so much time in close proximity of that device,” Waterhouse told Radio Canada.

He said some questions remain unanswered — such as how portable the app will be.

“If one travels across Canada with different provinces, will the application be supported by all of the various jurisdictions across the country?”

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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