The COVID Alert app icon

Federal government’s COVID Alert app is out for iOS and Android. I knew it was coming and have been thinking about whether I’ll use it or not. On one side is the government’s insidious gathering of information about us, and on the other is keeping safe and learning when I’ve been in contact with someone who has later tested positive.

It’s strength and weakness is that it’s a contact notification application, not a contact tracing application. That is, it will let you know only if someone you have been in contact with has later tested positive for COVID‑19. It will not let you know who that person is, when you were in contact, or where the contact occurred. All it tells you is that you really should go get tested to find out of you caught it from the person with which you were in contact.

The weakness is the very limited information you’re given. The strength is that you’re not laying your soul bare to the government. They receive very little information.

The main COVID Alert app page. Good news for me! I hope it stays this way.

How it works is your phone periodically generates a random code and transmits is via Bluetooth. Any phone near yours will record any codes it detects from other phones. If you some day are tested for COVID‑19 and the result is positive, you inform the app of this unfortunate occurrence. It then transmits this, with all the codes it has recorded, to a central server. All copies of the app periodically download this information from the server and your app recognizes its own code from any downloaded and marked as having been infected, it notifies you that you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive. Then you need to go get tested and see if you caught it.

No GPS data is used. It’s a clever solution to finding out if anyone you’ve been with has caught it, and at the same time protecting your privacy. But of course, you have to trust the application to do only what the government says is does.

I would normally not be onboard with this application, but COVID‑19 is serious. I believe there is so much about it that we don’t yet know, it could be far worse than we currently realize. So I did download and activate it. But at the same time, the Provincial and Federal Privacy Commissioners were consulted during its creation and Federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien says: “Canadians can opt to use this technology knowing it includes very significant privacy protections. I will use it.”

The real tipping point to my decision to use the app is the fact that the source code is available on GitHub. If you have programming knowledge, you can download the code yourself and see what it does. I appreciate that level of transparency.

Get it from the iOS App Store or on Google Play. More information is available on the COVID Alert app page.