Atlantic Canadian privacy lawyer encourages download of COVID-19 alert app

·3 min read

The federal government's recently launched COVID Alert app won't be tracking people everywhere they go, says David Fraser, a Halifax-based internet and privacy lawyer.

"The app itself does not collect any personal information, or any personally identifiable information," he said.

Fraser said the app was scrutinized by several regulators.

"The source code for the app itself is actually open source," he said. "It's available for anybody on the internet, who, obviously, can read code, to go through and make sure that it only does the things that they say that it does."

He said the app doesn't collect and put any personal information into a server unless people choose to do so.

"I don't think I've ever seen a piece of software more thoroughly scrutinized and also more easily available for others to scrutinize than this particular application," he said.

Dan Callis
Dan Callis

The app allows phones to use Bluetooth technology to exchange signals with nearby phones, as long as they, too, have the app downloaded.

If someone tests positive for COVID-19, their public health authority will give them a one-time key to enter into the app. The app will then send notices to phones that have been within two metres of the positive case.

The reason people have to enter a code from public health is to prevent mischief, like reporting a false positive, Fraser said.

While those in Atlantic Canada can download the app, it is not active yet. Right now, the app is only fully functional in Ontario.

Fraser said that as a privacy lawyer he spends a lot of time thinking about how his personal information may be gathered, but he has downloaded the app.

He understands why people are worried about mass surveillance and pointed to the Edward Snowden leaks which highlighted U.S. government spying on civilians.

He said people have also heard of police conducting "tower dumps" that can provide information on any phone connected to a specific tower for a period of time.

"Certainly there have been examples of government overreach. There's no doubt. That should make us concerned and validly so," he said.

Fraser said it would be stupid for public health to lie about what the app does. "If they were to try to put in some sort of surveillance backdoor everybody would delete it right away."

Fraser isn't the only one in Atlantic Canada to download the app and back it.

Laura Chapin/CBC
Laura Chapin/CBC

"It has great potential I believe if enough people sign on and … install it on their phone," said Chris Robinson, a sessional lecturer in the economics department at UPEI and a former health economist with the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"You need to have a lot of people, a high percentage of the population, maybe 70 to 80 per cent, who have made the decision to install it on their phone."

Right now, contact tracing is being done when a positive case comes up. However, Robinson said it is hard to remember everywhere you have been.

He said the app could help cut down on restaurants having to take names when people dine in, as an example.

"I believe this is a much more universal approach and a much more efficient approach than simply jotting down pen and paper lists of names," he said. "It's like adding Google to your life."

Robinson said setting up this app now could help in the future if there are further outbreaks of COVID-19 or any other illness.

"There's no reason to think there won't be probably future viruses," he said. "Having a contact-tracing app would facilitate follow up testing and, ultimately, 24/7 quarantine of people who are found to be positive."

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