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Canada's contact tracing app simple to use, but missing key features: security expert

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·3 min read
Young woman standing on train station wearing protective mask, using phone
GETTY

The federal government’s contact tracing app is now available for download, and while it is easy to use, a security expert says it needs to be offered in more languages to encourage wider use.

The voluntary app that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on June 18 aims to help stop community spread of COVID-19.

The app uses technology developed by Google and Apple called Exposure Notification Bluetooth Specification, the Prime Minister’s Office said at the time.

In order to protect the privacy of users, the app will not collect location information or personal information of the user.

Trudeau said at the time that anonymous data will be held by the federal government and will contain only the anonymous code associated with various phones.

For those who have the app, it will notify users if someone they were near in the past 14 days has notified the app that they tested positive.

Users who test positive and want to upload that info to the app receive a one-time key from their local public health authority. After entering the key, the app notifies users whose phones came within range of of the person who tested positive.

Stephanie Carvin, a security expert and associate professor at Carleton University, said in an interview that she downloaded a beta version of the app before it was launched publicly.

Carvin said her initial experience was that it was a “straightforward app” that most “Canadians won’t have to worry about.”

She also noted that she left the app running on her phone and it did not drain her phone battery.

Carvin however noted that moving forward one drawback is the limited languages the app is available in.

“Right now to my knowledge it is only available in English and French and we know that a lot of Canadians particularly some of our most vulnerable don’t necessarily speak English or French as their first language,” she said.

“It would be a good idea to have it available in certain other languages that are spoken, particularly for an area like Toronto.”

She noted that the app also is missing key accessibility features for users with disabilities.

“I spoke with [someone] from Canadian Digital Services. Apparently, they do have someone working on this problem, but I haven’t seen any changes yet and I think that’s going to be paramount moving forward,” she said.

Carvin also said the government really needs to keep stressing that personal information will not be collected, so users actually download the app and use it.

“This app doesn’t [collect data]. It would build the confidence of Canadians [to use] this app. It is going to be essential especially if we’re going to need something like 60 to 70 per cent of Canadians using it,” she said.

The Privacy Commissioner’s Office indicated in a press release that it supports the use of the app “subject to ongoing monitoring of its privacy protections and effectiveness.”

The release said that it had “productive and in-depth discussions with the federal and Ontario governments,” and concluded its review of the app.

“Canadians can opt to use this technology knowing it includes very significant privacy protections,” Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said in the release. “I will use it.”

The COVID alert app can be downloaded on Google's Play Store and Apple's App Store.

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