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Potential Covid-19 contact-tracing app brings up concerns

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Covid-19 contact-tracing app – Mila-Quebec, an institute specializing in artificial intelligence, will soon be launching ‘COVI’, a contact-tracing app for smartphones. Researchers in Montreal are doing final adjustments on the app – expected to be launched sometime in early June. According to CEO Valerie Pisano, the concept behind the app is the possibility for it to ‘help authorities detect potential COVID-19 hot spots before infections spiral out of control’. The institute has been working with the Federal privacy commissioner and other governments across the country to ensure the identity and privacy of people using the app will be protected. However, the whole idea of ‘contact-tracing’ is bringing up many concerns about sharing of data and even hacking.

Covid-19 contact-tracing app – Coming Soon!

Montreal’s public health director Mylene Drouin said last Friday her ‘team has been preparing to study apps that can trace COVID-19’, with Mila’s app being one of them. A few days later, Premier Francois Legault stated he knows there are other proposals in other provinces, but would like to ‘use the application made here in Quebec’. However, the message seems to be mixed, as the province is not even certain they want to introduce the technology.

The app is free and will be made available for download through Google Play and the Apple Store – for those who choose to use it, as it is voluntary. Once it is activated, users will need to provide some details, such as their age, sex and medical condition. It is what they call ‘personal clues’ associated the spreading of the virus. Names, email addresses or phone numbers are not required. With the information, it will help them to determine the probability of a user catching the virus or advise them what areas they should stay away from. And as a predictive app, it is faster than any other technology to date. On Mila-Quebec’s website, part of a much longer document explains (to read the full document go to.

Covid-19 contact-tracing app

THE COVI INTERFACE FOR USERS WORKS AS FOLLOWS: Upon download, users are provided with an overview of how the app works and the privacy implications of using COVI. After the user’s age is verified, they are prompted to fill out a short demographics and health pre-conditions questionnaire to initialize the application. By default, all this data stays on the phone. Once the onboarding is complete, the user arrives on the home screen. There are four primary elements to the screen:

– The tailored recommendations feature that helps users make real-time decisions daily about their activities based on their personal level of risk (out-of-app actions).

– The ‘action cards’ feature that prompts users to input additional/updated information to further tailor their risk profile (in-app actions).

– A survey and data visualization feature to allow users to express what is important to them and see how the crisis is unfolding.

– A ‘share’ button for the user to help promote adoption of COVI among their friends, family, colleagues, etc.

“Beyond these on-screen elements, COVI also supplies notifications to the user, either to update their in-app information (low-priority actions) or when urgent recommendations are updated (high-priority actions). When users are not actively using the app, it runs in the background, exchanging risk levels (in a cryptographically protected way) with other app users that they encounter. If a user gets tested for Covid-19, they will in earlier versions, be able to self-report the results of the test. In upcoming versions, users will be able to fetch their test results directly within the COVI application. When they input (or receive) a positive result, they will be asked for further consent to have it shared (through their elevated risk level) confidentially with recent contacts.”

In theory, the COVI app could prove to be very helpful in the fight to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Mila-Quebec appears to be taking the necessary steps towards keeping personal information confidential in the way they use and process information. Nevertheless, given the history of apps and websites using information, without clear consent – it does give one pause to question whether the identity and privacy of users will be respected.

By: Bonnie Wurst – info@mtltimes.ca

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