COVID Alert app finally launches in Ontario

Canada's long-awaited exposure notification app is entirely voluntary and includes a number of privacy safeguards

Canada’s long-awaited COVID Alert app launches today (Friday, July 31) in Ontario. I

t’s the same day Stage 3 of reopening goes into effect in Toronto, when gyms, movie theatres, playgrounds and indoor bars and restaurants are allowed to resume operations.

COVID Alert was originally supposed to launch on July 2, but was held back to coordinate with the federal government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of the first users to download the app, he said in a news conference this morning.

He added that though downloading the app is not mandatory, the app will be more effective the more people adopt it.

It’s available for iPhone and Android smartphones, and can be downloaded by searching COVID Alert in the App Store or Google Play.

At a time when contact tracing efforts have required people to share more of their personal data, the possibility of using phone data to track the spread of coronavirus raised the ire of some privacy experts across the country.

But privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien says it includes important privacy protections: The app doesn’t collect users’ names, locations or health information, though it does store IP addresses for three months to protect against cyber attacks.

It’s not even technically a contact tracing app, but a notification app. It uses Bluetooth to exchange random codes with other phones (which doesn’t include or store identifiable personal details) that change every five minutes.

Android users need to turn on location settings on for it to work, but it does not record their location.

Users can voluntarily record if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 using a one-time code given by Public Health. The app will then send an alert to every Bluetooth-enabled phone with the app that’s been within two metres of that person for at least 15 minutes within the last two weeks.

COVID Alert, which was built using software made by volunteers from Shopify and other unpaid contributions from Blackberry, is currently only available in Ontario, but will be rolled out to other parts of Canada later.

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