In March of this year, Canada came to a halt when the COVID-19 virus was found to be present in Canadian society. Health departments and officials have since struggled with devising a way to track the virus and its exposure, while ensuring Canadian’s rights to data and health privacy. In a modern world, technology is an asset that can and should be leveraged. The challenge is design a personal notification system that tracks COVID exposure, that does not infringe on personal privacy.
In July, after various beta testing rounds the Government of Canada released the COVID Alert App, which is designed to alert Canadians if they have potentially been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. According the Government of Canada’s website, “The app can let people know of possible exposures before any symptoms appear.”
From the website, here’s some more on how the app works (Canada.ca)
- The app runs in the background and will not interrupt your activities.
- Whenever you’re near someone else with the COVID Alert app, both phones exchange random codes every 5 minutes.
- The random codes change often and cannot be used to identify you.
What’s an exposure?
- The app estimates how near people are by the strength of Bluetooth signals.
- If you’re closer than 2 metres for more than 15 minutes, the app will record an exposure.
Getting a positive test
- If someone with the app is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can choose to upload the random codes into a central server.
- No personal information about the person is sent
Looking for exposures
- Every day, your phone will get a list of the random codes from people who reported a diagnosis.
- If it finds codes that match, the app notifies you that you’ve been exposed and explains what to do next.
The biggest question we’ve heard from our community? “Is the COVID Alert App safe to use?”
The short answer is yes. Since the only information the app is designed to share is random codes, there is no personal data stored. Additionally, each of these codes is encrypted by your phone, and you must give permission to the app before your phone will share any code with the COVID Alert App.
Canadian Digital Services has designed the app so that it cannot connect your identity to these random codes, and none of your information or that of anyone else is stored in the servers.
Note that if you use an Android phone Bluetooth scanning needs Location setting on for all apps. While COVID Alert has no way of knowing where you are, Google may have access to your location. If you have an Android phone, you may want to use the lowest accuracy option for Location and turn off Google Location History.
Online, the website mentions that the app stores your IP address in a system log, however they are only kept for 3 months, and 2 years if an investigation occurs.
While the app does belong to the Government of Canada, your identity and health status will not be shared. COVID Alert does not know who you are and cannot access your health information.
Overall, do we believe the app is safe to use? Yes. According to all the research and data they’ve shared, we believe the COVID Alert App was designed with Canadian’s privacy in mind, and with one goal – to help stop the spread of the virus. If you’re unsure if you should download the app, more information, including the app’s privacy assessment, is available on the Government of Canada’s website.