How does Canada’s coronavirus tracing app work?

Ottawa’s recently released coronavirus tracing app is not without flaws but is a safe tool for those with privacy concerns, according to a University of Waterloo professor who specializes in artificial intelligence and technology.

In a release, Waterloo professor Mark Crowley says the COVID Alert app basically functions using Bluetooth connections and random codes that are generated and stored in your phone.

Read more: Canada launches COVID-19 tracking app — but only in Ontario

Bluetooth is a strong tool because if a person is within Bluetooth range of someone else, they are also susceptible to catching the virus from that person (around two to three metres).

If the app decides your phone is close enough to another person’s phone, they will exchange random codes that will be stored for two weeks. The codes are only exchanged between the two cellphones, according to Crowley.

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If a person were to test positive for the coronavirus, they would receive a random one-time code to punch into their app. Crowley says the code has no identifying information.

After you enter the code and give the app permission, the list of random codes it sent out over the previous two weeks will then be shared with a central server.

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The Waterloo prof says this is when other people will be alerted that they may have been infected with COVID-19.

Crowley says he understands why people would be concerned about security and data privacy when adding the COVID-19 app to their phones.

Read more: COVID 19 Alert app faces accessibility criticism for older Canadians, marginalized groups

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“I am using the app, and my family is using the app,” he said. “I do not have concerns about its privacy controls. However, people have raised many legitimate concerns about these kinds of apps in other countries and even the rollout of this particular one in Canada.”

He says the app attempts to share as little information as possible while still allowing for contact tracing.

“Any app using this layer cannot access location or identity from the phone,” he said. “So, the federal or provincial government cannot track your location or identity using this app.”

One potential downside that Crowley noted was the fact the app will not work with older phones.

“The app depends on a software technology that is only available on more recent phones (Android: 6.0+, iOS:13.5+),” he explained. “This means many Canadians with older or un-upgraded phones, estimated at around 11 per cent of the mobile phones in the country, will not be capable of running the app.”

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He says it is important for people to download the app as it is a tool to minimize the spread of the virus.

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“We all need to work together as a society to get through living with this disease until reliable treatments and prevention methods are available,” Crowley said.

“While treatment is improving every day and vaccine trials are racing ahead, it may be years before we have a real grip on how to minimize death and suffering from COVID-19.”

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