A nationwide coronavirus tracking app is set to launch in Canada, but while the government says its software is fully anonymous, skeptics have raised major privacy concerns, pointing to similarly intrusive programs overseas.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the new software would soon be unveiled in a press briefing on Thursday, previewing a contact tracing project spearheaded by the Canadian Digital Service, a federal agency, and e-commerce giant Shopify.
“It will be up to individual Canadians to decide whether to download the app or not, but the app will be most effective when as many people as possible have it,” Trudeau said, stressing that the initiative is voluntary and secure.
Because it’s completely anonymous, because it’s low maintenance, because it is completely respectful of your privacy… people can be confident that this is an easy measure that they can have to continue to keep us all safe as we reopen.
Using Bluetooth technology provided by Apple and Google, the app will alert users when they come in close contact with a diagnosed coronavirus patient, who would also have to use the software, inputting some of their health information. Privacy advocates, however, have cast doubt on the government’s claim that the app is “completely anonymous,” arguing that such software is rarely ever fully secure.
“First, ‘complete anonymity’ is bulls**t, please don’t listen to politicians about the limitations of surveillance systems,” said Sarah Jamie Harris, executive director of Open Privacy, a Canadian non-profit.
“The Canadian Federal and Provincial governments can’t even prevent hospitals from broadcasting plaintext patient health records across major cities,” Harris added. “There is no history of competent handling of healthcare data to back up any privacy claim.”
Though the app has already been hailed as an “important” step in the fight against Covid-19, some critics observed that there was yet no evidence that it actually works. Others questioned whether the initiative would be truly voluntary.
Pointing out that another contact tracing application was recently banned in Norway over privacy fears, one social media user asked Shopify whether its joint project might have similar issues. The company’s response wasn’t of much help, sending a boilerplate message directing the question to the Canadian government.
Earlier this week, Norway’s Data Protection Authority issued a temporary ban for the Smittestopp – or ‘Stop Infection’ – app, deeming it a privacy violation and ordering federal health authorities to delete all collected data. Similar apps developed in Germany, the UK and elsewhere have also inflamed security concerns. After initially rejecting a contact tracing app, the British government made an abrupt about-face on Thursday, greenlighting software using the same Apple-Google tech as Canada’s model.
Some commenters were far less hostile to the Canadian app, however, saying the software “hits lots of the right points [regarding] privacy” and would help to contain the spread of the lethal virus. One user said the “freakout” over the app was exaggerated and driven by tinfoil-hat paranoia.