Voluntary nationwide contact tracing app coming soon, says Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he hopes Canadians will download a new app on their cellphones that will alert them if they’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will update Canadians on the latest measures the federal government is taking to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The app is led by the Canadian Digital Service, a government initiative connecting departments with startups, with help from Shopify, BlackBerry and the Ontario government. Premier Doug Ford is expected to have more details later today.

“If you test positive for COVID-19, a health-care professional will help you upload your status anonymously to a national network,” said Trudeau during his daily briefing on Thursday morning.

“Other users who have the app and have been in proximity to you will then be alerted that they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive. The notification will encourage them to reach out to their local public health authorities.”

The prime minister said Ontario will start testing the app first, but it will be available to everyone in the coming weeks.

Public health officials have been championing the practice of tracking people who may have come in contact with an infected person in order to get them tested and isolated, and the step is widely viewed as vital to a country’s pandemic recovery.

While most provinces are doing that laborious work with volunteers, conversations and negotiations have continued with technology companies for weeks about the development of smartphone apps to speed up the effort.

Last month, Trudeau said the government is hoping to publicly endorse one app to encourage its use across the country.

App use is voluntary, says PM

Alberta has been using its own app called ABTraceTogether for weeks now. That has some people worrying about a mishmash of apps across the country that could lead to confusing messaging, low uptake numbers and inconsistent data.

A man looks at his phone while standing near artwork of a woman wearing a protective face mask in Vancouver on May 31. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau stressed that the new app will be completely voluntary.

“At no time will personal information be collected or shared, and no location services will be used,” he said.

“The privacy of Canadians will be fully respected.”

Today’s announcement will likely also receive scrutiny from privacy advocates, who have raised concerns about how much data these emerging technologies collect and how that information is stored.

The federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners issued a joint statement in May, meant to act as guiding principles before adopting any kind of technology to track Canadians.

They cautioned that apps should be voluntary and users should be fully informed about what information will be collected, how it will be used, who will have access to it, where it will be stored, how it will be securely retained and when it will be destroyed, they said.


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