COVID-19 Contact Tracing App in Canada will use Bluetooth
June 2020 Charity & NFP Law Update
Published on June 25, 2020

By Esther Shainblum

The Ontario government announced on June 18, 2020 that, in partnership with the federal government, it is launching a “privacy-first”, voluntary contact tracing mobile app (or application) called “COVID Alert”, which will alert Ontarians if they may have been exposed to COVID-19. The app is expected to be available for download in Ontario starting on July 2, 2020.

Once launched, Ontarians may voluntarily download and install the COVID Alert app on their mobile devices. The COVID Alert app will not collect or store personal, health or location data, and will notify users anonymously if they have been exposed to another app user who tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days if they uploaded their results anonymously to the app. The app, which will be compatible with Apple and Android systems, uses the Bluetooth technology that is included in nearly all mobile devices to send out encrypted anonymized codes to other nearby mobile devices that also have the app. The COVID Alert app will also connect users to Ontario’s public health resources and recommend any necessary measures such as self-monitoring, self-isolation and testing.

Although the app is being launched for testing in Ontario, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that it will eventually be used nationwide, will be a “crucial” public health step, and will be most effective when as many people as possible have it.

According to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, privacy and security for users was the top priority in the development of the app. This approach is in keeping with the advice provided by the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners who, on May 7, 2020, released a Joint Statement by Federal, Provincial and Territorial Privacy Commissioners (the “Commissioners”) providing a set of privacy principles for contact tracing apps. The Commissioners urged both levels of government to ensure that contract tracing apps respected certain key principles, including ensuring that the use of apps is voluntary; that the measures have a clear legal basis and that consent is meaningful; that the measures taken are evidence-based, proportional and minimally intrusive; that personal information is used for the intended public health purpose and for no other purpose; ensuring that de-identified or aggregate data is used whenever possible; implementing ongoing public monitoring and evaluation of the measures, as well as oversight by an independent third party; and ensuring that appropriate legal and technical security safeguards are put in place to prevent unauthorized access or misuse of personal information.

The provincial government has indicated that the COVID Alert app will not use GPS technology. Instead, as stated above, it will rely on Bluetooth to send encrypted, anonymized codes only to other nearby phones that also have the app installed.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has not yet commented on the app and is “working diligently and responsibly” to provide advice to the federal government. The federal government is also establishing an external advisory council to guide the rollout of the app and ensure transparency, also in keeping with the advice of the Commissioners.

Read the June 2020 Charity & NFP Law Update