As Michael Geist Touts Contact Tracing App, Problems Are Emerging

Recently, Michael Geist said that he has installed a Canadian contact tracing app. Unfortunately, problems with the technology are emerging.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on, many are trying to throw anything and everything at this virus to stop or slow the spread. It’s quite non-controversial, really. If it’ll help the fight against the virus in the absence of a vaccine, why not add it to the arsenal?

In Canada, we are experiencing a tale of two countries. In Canada, the spread of COVID-19 has been very slow. The last time Canada experienced more than 1,000 cases was back in May. Daily deaths are frequently in the single digits (occasionally making it into the double digits before settling back down into the single digits). Suffice to say, Canada has been quite successful in flattening the curve. This is thanks to early action, locking down the country, barring travel, wall to wall messaging from top medical doctors provincially and federally, and citizens who, for the most part, did listen to the medical advice.

While that is definitely good news, Canadians are looking on in horror at what is happening in the US. Tens of thousands of new cases, frequently over a thousand new deaths every day, an administration who is seemingly just wishing and spinning away the virus and is at war with medical science. To make matters worse, many are thinking that the push to re-open schools will cause case loads to spiral further out of control. Some Americans are hoping that kids will just stay home.

Despite being almost a polar opposite situation in Canada, there are certainly plenty of people actively wondering if we can do more. What can we do, as a country, to further help slow the spread of COVID-19? One often touted solution is getting Canadians to download and install COVID-19 contact tracing apps. In fact, very recently, Michael Geist wrote an analysis of a contact tracing app in Canada and, after weighing possible concerns, said that he has installed the app:

The Canadian government officially released COVID Alert, its exposure notification app, on Friday. Ontario is the first province to use it with plans to implement it in the Atlantic provinces and B.C. in the near future (other provinces may follow). I posted several tweets about the app, including one that received hundreds of likes and retweets indicating that I have installed it (the tweet included links to the Apple and Android versions of the app). Given the interest, this post expands on the tweet by explaining what the app does and doesn’t do and why I think the government has done a good job of addressing many associated concerns.

The Canadian COVID Alert app is ultimately as notable for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. The voluntary app does not collect personal information nor provide the government (or anyone else) with location information. The app merely runs in the background on an Apple or Android phone using bluetooth technology to identify other devices that come within 2 metres for a period of 15 minutes or more. Obviously, the distance and timing are viewed as the minimum for a potential transmission risk. If this occurs, a unique, random identifier is stored on each person’s device for a period of 14 days. After the 14 day period, the identifier is deleted from the device.

The identifier does not identify a specific person or location information, and is not sent to any centralized database. If a person tests positive for the virus, they are given a key code to input into the app. Once the key code is inputted, anyone that was identified as being potentially exposed over the prior 14 days receives a notification that this has occurred and they should consider testing and/or self-isolating.

From a privacy perspective, this is very low risk. Indeed, the government’s position – confirmed in the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s analysis – is that there is no collection of any personal information and therefore the Privacy Act does not apply. The Privacy Commissioner rightly points out this raises some concerns about the state of the law (arguing it should be sufficiently robust to allow for reviews of this kind), however, the use of random identifiers ensures that identification of individual is very unlikely. Moreover, the Privacy Commissioner’s review concludes that “there are very strong safeguards in place” with security of the data, commitments limiting use, independent oversight, and a pledge to de-commission the app (including deletion of all data) within 30 days of the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada declaring the pandemic over.

Yet these reasons were not justification enough for me to install the app. Rather, it is the safeguards combined with the public health benefits that swayed me to do so. Necessity and proportionality are one of the top issues raised by the privacy commissioners. The federal commissioner notes:

While exposure notification apps are new and untested, we believe that in context, the governments of Canada and Ontario have sufficiently demonstrated that COVID Alert is likely to be effective in reducing the spread of the virus, as part of a larger set of measures and subject to close monitoring for effectiveness once the app is in use. The relevant context includes the fact that COVID-19 is novel, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, and therefore requires consideration of new mitigation responses with reasonable prospects of success.

The commissioner also called for continuous review of effectiveness and that “the Government of Canada decommission the app if its effectiveness cannot be demonstrated.” In other words, an independent review has found that the privacy risks associated with the app have been addressed and that it is likely to help reduce the spread of the virus. That was reason enough for me – and hopefully many others – to install it.

Geist did note that there are issues with compatibility with older phones, but dismissed that as not a reason to abandon the initiative. Still, it has been one point of concern. From the CBC:

The federal government’s COVID-19 exposure notification app is facing criticism for its download requirements, which restrict some Canadians from accessing and using the app.

The app has quickly become the most downloaded free app in Canada, topping the charts of both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, with more than 1.18 million Canadians downloading the app as of Sunday night, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat told CBC News.

But the app requires users to have Apple or Android phones made in the last five years, and a relatively new operating system.

In addition to this, there are concerns that some parts of the population simply won’t have access to this:

Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy, says that makes the app inaccessible for older Canadians and other marginalized groups who are often the most affected by the pandemic, including Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour and those from lower socio-economic brackets.

“Who’s not going to be able to install the application? That same group … that’s a problem,” he said.

“This is a failure of policy,” he said. “The government should have seen this … they should have predicted it, I hope someone has, and they should have done something to try and start fixing it.”

He added that the issue of needing an app that works with older smartphones was known from the start.

Indeed, it is very easy to see generations younger than boomers always snapping up the latest phone and thinking how universal it is to get the latest and greatest. The problem is, buying a new smart phone almost every year is actually quite pricey. An example about the latest iPhone:

The new $399.00 iPhone SE (2020) is the most budget-friendly iPhone that runs on Apple’s top-end A13 Bionic chip — the same chip in the more expensive iPhone 11 series — and it sports a 4.7-inch screen, the classic iPhone 8 design, and a single-lens 12-megapixel camera.

The new iPhone SE will be available for pre-order on Friday, April 17. It’ll be available to buy starting April 24. It’s available in three colors, include white, black, and red.

  • iPhone SE 64GB: $399.00
  • iPhone SE 128GB: $449.00
  • iPhone SE 256GB: $549.00

As for Android phones, well, the picture is better, but not by much:

Those on a tight budget can get a good-enough Android phone for under $200. Step up to the $400 range, and the choices get considerably better, especially when it comes to camera quality. And you can get flagship-level performance starting at under $700, so long as you’re willing to live without some bells and whistles and the finest photography.

The most premium Android flagship phones start at $899, offering the sharpest and brightest displays, the most advanced photography and cutting edge features like reverse wireless charging and 120Hz screens. For now, 5G remains a premium feature, but more affordable 5G Android phones with faster download speeds are on the way from multiple brands, like Samsung and TCL, and will arrive this summer.

For someone living the nice suburban life and making, at least, $50,000 a year, that wouldn’t be a problem. Who can’t afford a new phone every year or so? For someone struggling to crack $20,000 a year and living paycheck to paycheck, however, it might be possible to stretch the budget enough to snag the cheapest models, but doing so every couple of years is probably going to be pretty tough. There are plenty of people who are stuck working casual hours at minimum wage and, put simply, it sucks.

Then there are more elder populations who have members who simply don’t do technology. We’re talking the types that still have VCR’s flashing “12:00” and don’t own a computer. Even if they did own a computer of any kind at all, it is a struggle just to figure out how to log in to Facebook just to communicate with others. Obviously, not everyone is like that, but there certainly are plenty who do fall into that category. Do you honestly think those same people who don’t get technology to buy a cellphone, go onto an app store, and download and install a contact tracing app on their own? Not likely.

Probably the interesting thing in all of this is the fact that there have been contact tracing app deployments in other countries. We can definitely learn a lot from the experiences in other countries. In one article from Brookings, 60% of the population need to adopt the contact tracing apps accordingly in order for the apps to be successful. That, already, is a massively high bar set here. The outcomes of some countries are, well, not good. From Brookings:

But Americans continue to be deeply skeptical of such technology. In a nationally representative study of 2,000 Americans between April 30 and May 1, 2020, we found that just over 30 percent of Americans indicated they would download and use a mobile contact-tracing app, raising questions about whether such technology will be adopted widely enough to be effective. In a bit of good news for developers, support among Americans for digital contact tracing tends to increase with stronger privacy protections.

In countries where digital contact-tracing efforts are already underway, widespread adoption continues to be a major problem. In Singapore, where authorities in March rolled out one of the first contact-tracing apps, up-take has only reached 20 percent. Iceland announced recently week that 38 percent of its population had downloaded its version, the highest level of voluntary adoption of an automated contact tracing app to date.

Contact-tracing apps are not meant to replace other public health measures, nor should they. Indeed, beyond the concern about effectiveness and security of these apps, public health officials should realize that digital contact tracing introduces new challenges of access and equity. The technology on which it relies—cell phones—is not spread evenly across societies but fragmented. The tool will not help populations who have lower levels of smartphone ownership such as the elderly or homeless, who are also particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Research is required to determine whether the apps are effective and whether they generate significant amounts of false positives or negatives, so that the technology can improve. Its roll-out should of course be as accurate as possible, but our research shows that public confidence and in turn efficacy will grow if, or as, it proves its worth.

This raises a serious question about the Canadian approach to COVID-19: why limit the program to Ontario? Yes, Ontario has a large portion of the countries population, but only focusing on rolling out in one country already handicaps possibly deployment. How severe is this handicap? According to Statistics Canada, Ontario accounts for 38.6% of the population:

On July 1, 2018, more than 32 million Canadians (86.4%) were living in one of four provinces: Ontario (38.6%), Quebec (22.6%), British Columbia (13.5%) and Alberta (11.6%).

The only reason we can think of as to why you would limit this experiment to Ontario is to test and see how deployment winds up going. In a few months, data would roll in about how adoption is going, then you would possibly start pushing the rollout to other provinces. In this case, why would you do that? Yes, massive rollouts have a tendency to expose flaws in a system, but in this case, time is of the essence. It’s understandable that you would roll this out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

In another story in the StraitsTimes, the situation is just as cringy:

Europe’s experiment in using technology to fight coronavirus has achieved some early successes: millions of people have downloaded smartphone tracker apps and hundreds have uploaded the results of positive Covid-19 tests.

Yet most European countries so far lack solid evidence that their apps – which identify close contacts via Bluetooth connections with nearby users – are actually alerting people who may have caught the disease before they can infect others.

Its Covid Tracker app, which has been downloaded by 30 per cent of the population, tallies how many people upload a positive test result and how many get notifications.

The article seems to believe the problem lies in the fact that it is privacy requirements that are to blame for this, but that isn’t really that convincing.

At this point in time, some of you might be thinking, “OK Mr. Knowitall, what would it take to satisfy your skepticism about the rollout?” Well, I’d be glad you would ask.

First of all, for Canada, make the app compatible with the maximum number of cell phones as possible. This should have happened in the development phase. Since it clearly wasn’t, resolve this problem as soon as possible.

Second, expand the push to all of Canada. This happened with the National Public Alerting System (NPAS), so it is absolutely staggering that the app wasn’t rolled out on a similar scale.

Third, invest in a massive advertising campaign. We’re talking TV ads, radio ads, online ads, and mailers. This is to impress on the population of the importance of installing and running the app.

Fourth, have people go door-to-door to not only educate, but also assist people who don’t have the app and lack the knowledge to install and use it.

Fifth, offer free loaner phones to people who either simply do not own a cell phone or can’t afford it. This is meant to address people who have affordability problems.

At that point, the only hole in the plan is addressing those who are homeless. The best thing we can come up with is having health professionals patrol areas in cities where homeless people reside. Have a police presence if safety is a concern, but emphasize that this is about ensuring the health of the homeless population and that they won’t get in trouble for possession or anything else as a result of the health visit.

An initiative like that would ultimately show that the federal government is all-in with this contact tracing app. It’s expensive as [insert explitive here], but trying to obtain a sufficient adoption rate needs a major initiative to pack it. Beyond that, I personally have a hard time believing that this contact tracing app has much of a chance for success.

To be fair, we have to give credit where credit is due. Trying to engineer a balance with tracking COVID-19 and privacy has been handled impressively well. That actually has been done pretty darn well if you ask us.

If anything, the only interesting outcome I see this app having is exposing various population divides. This includes the wealthy and the poor and probably the rural and urban divide on top of it all. Racial divides will also be exposed as well if this app is researched in a retrospective fashion.

Given how unsuccessful these apps have been with other countries and the tepid response from the Canadian government, it’s not looking good for the Canadian app at this point. It’s disappointing especially given that I have a strong belief that technology can solve a lot of the worlds problems. The problem isn’t the technology, but rather, the deployment. Unless things turn around quickly with this experiment, this one could wind up being a dead on arrival.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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