As the second wave of COVID-19 spreads across Canada, the use of COVID-19 tracing apps is on the rise. For example, the Government of Canada released COVID Alert – an app using Bluetooth technology to help people report positive diagnoses, and control the spread of the virus. The success of the app depends on a high quantity of users, but concerns over privacy and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in analyzing the data may hinder that objective.
COVID tracing apps
With the launch of COVID Alert, Canada joined 40 other countries that have launched tracing apps. The Bluetooth-based app functions by exchanging random codes with nearby phones, and checks a list of codes from other users who have reported a positive diagnosis. Close contact with someone who has reported a positive result within 2 weeks delivers a notification, and prompts users to get tested as well. In conjunction with Bluetooth technology, AI has been harnessed as a powerful tool for tracking and treating COVID-19 globally. Prior to the current pandemic, AI has been used to track infectious diseases. For example, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has developed AI to detect pneumonia and lung damage in patients. With the arrival of COVID-19 in local hospitals, doctors began to use the technology to diagnose and treat COVID in over 6000 chest x-rays. The BBC also recently reported on AI algorithms which can positively identify and diagnose COVID-19 in individuals solely by the sound of their cough.
One of the main features of the COVID Alert app in Canada is its focus on privacy; a key concern for many individuals hesitant to use the app. Health Canada cites section 4 of the Department of Health Act (the Act) as authority for the app, which provides the Minister of Health with the powers, duties, and functions over all matters related to the promotion and preservation of the health of Canadians. The Federal, Provincial, and Territorial (FPT) Privacy Commissioners’ Joint Statement recognizes that the app must be voluntary in order to build public trust. The app was developed in consultation with the Information and Privacy Minister of Canada. In response to concerns, the Information and Privacy Minister of Canada conducted a Privacy Assessment (the Assessment). The federal Privacy Act was deemed to not be triggered, as the app does not collect any personal information, health information, or location data of users. The Government of Canada stated that there is no “serious possibility” that an individual could be identified from the data elements.
Since the success of the COVID Alert app depends on the quantity of users, the government has considered alternative ways to promote its everyday use. For example, the Ontario government has partnered with influential brands, including the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Argonauts, Toronto FC and Toronto Maple Leafs to promote use of the app through their social media channels.
According to epidemiologists, a professional social media campaign targeting a younger audience which makes a compelling case for the value of the app (highlighting its confidentiality and data privacy) is required in order to encourage use of the app. And while this has been a stated goal from the start, there are gaps in the Privacy Act that must be addressed. For example, there is always a possibility for the re-identification of individuals based on the context in which the information is required. Additionally, there must be consistent measures put in place to ensure that personal information that is collected is stored in a manner that maintains the privacy of the individual.
National adoption of COVID tracing apps may help the public remain aware, responsible, and in control during a global pandemic. The use of AI to facilitate the collection of information is also proving to be very valuable. However, attention must be given to how privacy laws may be amended to address concerns over how personal information is collected and stored. Additionally, other issues, such as employers who choose to penalize employees for not downloading the app, must be taken into consideration. The risks involved in data protection are serious, and must be addressed accordingly, as discussed here, which includes a link to our publication on contact tracing apps and interactive map.