QUESTION PERIOD

COVID-19 Exposure Notification Application

May 4, 2022


Senator Gold, the launch of the Government of Canada’s COVID Alert app was a missed opportunity in the earlier stages of the pandemic and ultimately failed due to a very low adoption rate. It is estimated that only 17% of Canadians downloaded the app, of which only half of those were estimated to be active at the peak. Senators Moodie, Dasko and I conducted a survey that found that five times that many, or 80% of Canadians, wanted to use their mobile device data to notify others they had been close to if they tested positive for COVID-19.

The app is now in a zombie state between the low adoption rate and the fact that it is now useless given it requires a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test confirmation to input the positive case data.

Does the government have a plan to retire this application and, importantly, conduct a post-mortem? Can you speak to why Canada had such low download and adoption rates compared to, for example, New Zealand at 60%?

I can’t understand why there was no plan to use partnerships with businesses that could benefit from the app to encourage its use, for example, airlines. Can you speak to that please?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate) [ + ]

Thank you, colleague, for the question. The COVID Alert app is one of many tools made available to Canadians to help slow the spread of COVID-19. I’m advised the government continually reviews the evolving scientific evidence and public health guidelines to determine the app’s continued use. The government is also maintaining and monitoring the service as the pandemic evolves.

I further note that in the COVID-19 Exposure Notification Application Privacy Assessment under the “Time-Limitation” paragraph, the government committed:

The app as a whole will be shut down within 30 days of a declaration by the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada that the pandemic is over.

Colleagues, as of February 15, 2022, the app has been downloaded more than 6.9 million times. More than 58,000 users have entered a one-time key into the app. Since April 2021, this has resulted in more than 388,000 notifications and the identification of at least 2,290 positive cases. These notifications provided users with next steps to self-isolate and to get tested or self-monitor for symptoms so as to limit the transmission of COVID-19.

While downloading the app is voluntary, the government is still encouraging Canadians to download it and, of course, individuals can at any time delete the app.

Senator Gold, health data is under a lot of scrutiny. I believe the COVID Alert app went above and beyond in how it managed data, and the privacy-by-design element received gold star marks from many privacy experts. Yet it was not adopted at anything close to the rates of other countries despite the numbers you have provided.

Does the government have a plan to manage the public perception of this type of app into the future? The reality is we are going to need to have more digital data to help us with good decision making. All the elements were in place, but it was a failure in terms of adoption. I’m hoping the government hasn’t given up. I’m hoping the government is looking for ways to do a better job in the future.

Senator Gold [ + ]

Thank you for the follow-up question. As I said, the government continues to monitor its application and use in order to determine whether it or some other technique, app or method would prove even more effective and popular. As soon as decisions are made, I’m sure they will be communicated in a timely fashion.

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