The federal government on Friday released its long-awaited smartphone app that will help notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus — but a number of people have since been discovering they can’t download it.
The voluntary exposure notification app, named COVID Alert, is available for download across Canada but it’s first being tested in Ontario. That means for now, only Ontario is distributing one-time keys to people who have contracted the virus so they can anonymously upload their COVID-19 status on the app.
Whether you can download the app at all, however, depends on your phone’s operating system.
That’s because the underlying exposure notification technology the app is built on is only available on Apple and Android phones “released with the past 5 years,” according to the Canadian Digital Service, the federal agency that led the development of COVID Alert. Apple and Google jointly developed that exposure notification framework.
That means iPhone users need at least iOS 13.5, which excludes models older than the iPhone 6S. According to Apple’s website, iOS 13.5 “introduces the Exposure Notification API to support COVID-19 contact tracing apps from public health authorities.”
Android users, meanwhile, need at least version 6.
Many people, including an Ontario MPP, have since taken to social media to express their disappointment in this limitation, with some pointing out that individuals who can’t afford the newest smartphone models can’t benefit from the app.
In responding to users, the Canadian Digital Service tweeted that the issue is one it’s “keeping an eye on.”
Other Twitter users reported they couldn’t download the app on iPhones with beta versions of iOS 14, for which the final release is expected this fall. In response, the federal agency tweeted that COVID Alert will be available for iOS 14 once it’s out of beta.
Global News has reached out to the Canadian Digital Service for more information about the app’s download restrictions and will update this story if a response is received.
Back in June, when Trudeau announced the government was developing the exposure notification app, the prime minister said “there are over 30 million smartphones that could could take this app in Canada.”
COVID Alert app now available for download
Federal officials and health experts have emphasized that the COVID Alert app is ultimately one more tool to help track the spread of COVID-19 in Canada’s communities.
They’ve said the app does not replace crucial conventional contact-tracing efforts, where trained local public health workers talk to a person who contracted COVID-19 to identify their close contacts over the last two weeks. The app, rather, is meant to complement that process.
At the same time, federal officials have said they want as many people as possible downloading and using the app, saying a higher uptake will make it more effective.
“The more people use it, the better it can trace and therefore slow the spread of the virus,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday when announcing the app’s launch.
“In fact, health experts say that if enough people sign up, this app can help prevent future outbreaks of COVID-19 in Canada.”
COVID Alert’s launch, even, was delayed in part because the government was taking the time to make the app as user-friendly as possible.
The app is expected to launch nationally after piloting in Ontario. Trudeau said on Friday that other provinces “will be joining in soon.”
The federal government refers to COVID Alert as an exposure notification app — as opposed to a contact-tracing app — because it doesn’t track personal data.
Challenges of developing contact tracing app in Canada
During the setup process, the app stipulates that it doesn’t use GPS or location services. The app also has “no way of knowing” the user’s location, name, address, phone contacts, health information — nor the “health information of anyone you’re near.”
To protect user privacy, the Apple-Google exposure notification technology is designed to have phones (with the app installed) exchange beacons via Bluetooth with randomized identifiers. The privacy watchdogs for Canada and Ontario said Friday they support use of COVID Alert.
“Canadians can opt to use this technology knowing it includes very significant privacy protections,” federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien, said. “I will use it.”
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