Trudeau announces contact tracing app to track spread of COVID-19

Shruti Shekar
Telecom & Tech Reporter


In an effort to reopen the economy safely, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a contact tracing app that will alert users if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

Trudeau said during his daily press briefing that the app will be available in the coming weeks and is fully voluntary.

“We will soon begin testing this app in Ontario. There are already a number of provinces, including B.C., who are working with us on this, but it will be available to everyone in the coming weeks,” he said. 

Trudeau stressed that it will be up to the individual to decide whether to download the app, but that the app is most effective when “as many people as possible have it.”

He noted that if you test positive for coronavirus, a healthcare professional will help you upload your status “anonymously to a national network.”

Users who have the app and have been near an individual who has tested positive will be alerted that they’ve been exposed to a positive case. 

“The notification will encourage them to reach out to their local public health authorities,” he said.

The app will use technology developed by Google and Apple called Exposure Notification Bluetooth Specification, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed in an email.

According to the information document, the technology “does not use location for proximity detection. It strictly uses Bluetooth beaconing to detect proximity.”

This identifier changes on average every 15 minutes, the document reads.

“This application is based on a change made by Google and Apple to their operational systems,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau stated that “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.

Trudeau said that the anonymous data will be held by the federal government and will contain only the anonymous code associated with various phones. He added that no personal information will be stored.

“If you test positively, a code will be developed that will make it clear to people who are in proximity to you that they have been exposed,” he said.

Shopify, Blackberry, the Government of Ontario, and the Canadian Digital Service, have been in charge of creating the nation-wide mobile app. Trudeau also added that Canada’s privacy commissioner has also been involved in the creation of this app.

“We know uptake of this app is not possible if people are worried about privacy,” he said.

Bluetooth beaconing better at protecting data: expert

Sumit Bhatia, director of communications and knowledge mobilization with the Ryerson’s Cybersecure Catalyst, said in an interview that the use of Bluetooth beaconing does a better job of protecting the privacy and security of Canadians more than collecting data based on location service.

“In general, location-based data just increases the risk for users should there be a data leak or a cyber attack,” he said. “The exposure of that data is much more vulnerable... location data is also not always precise. Bluetooth, on the other hand, is not calculating your location. It’s communicating directly with your device through the use of standards-based technology.”

Bhatia explained that Bluetooth has more accuracy especially within a range that is less than 100 feet versus location data which does better outside of that distance.

He added that while most people might be concerned that Bluetooth might drain phone batteries, it might not be the case for this particular app.

“Research shows that a lot of people typically have their Bluetooth functionality on, even when they’re not using it,” he said. “By running [the app] in the background, by only limiting the type of data and the amount of data that is actually passing through it, it does limit the battery exposure.”

While Bhatia thinks this is a good move by the government, he added that there are still some concerns around the digital divide in Canada.

“We know that one in four low-income Canadian households do not have a smartphone, which affects things such as access to this app, the education around its use, and its general uptake for effectiveness,” he said.

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