Quebec declines to use federal COVID-19 notification app for now

Quebec will not ask its citizens to download the federal COVID-19 notification app for the time being, the minister responsible for digital transformation, Éric Caire, announced Tuesday afternoon.

The government believes the tracing system it is using now is adequate, given that there has been a slowdown in the number of cases reported in the province.

However, the province will continue to do the logistical work needed to deploy the app in the event of a second wave.

Even though the number of new cases has decreased in recent weeks, Quebecers “must not lower their guard,” Health Minister Christian Dubé said.

Launched by the federal government on July 31 — and so far operational only in Ontario — the COVID Alert app is designed to warn users if they’ve spent at least 15 minutes in the past two weeks within two metres of another user who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

The app, which works on Apple and Android devices made in the last five years, has received positive reviews from privacy advocates, but myths persist about the data it collects — and doesn’t collect

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Tuesday that 2.2 million Ontarians have downloaded the app so far.

“From the federal perspective we want as many Canadians participating as possible,” she said, adding it is “very, very helpful” to ensure those who travel between provinces are notified of possible exposure to the virus.

Experts in both technology and public health stress that the more people who use it, the better it will be.

In mid-August, Caire pointed to an online survey that showed 76 per cent of Quebecers believed a mobile application would be useful as an additional tool in the fight against COVID-19. 

A man wears a face mask as he browses on his phone in a shopping mall in Montreal. A federal notification app called COVID Alert is available across the country, but for now is only operational in Ontario. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But the Commission des institutions, the province’s legislative committee responsible for studying the usefulness of the app, said the disadvantages of the app outweigh the advantages. 

“Quebec’s legal framework is inadequate in terms of data and personal information protection and access to information, informed consent and the fight against discrimination,” the committee said in its report.

Committee members acknowledged that almost all of the 18 experts who testified at the hearings expressed serious reservations about the effectiveness and reliability of these technologies.

The populations most vulnerable to the virus are those who would have the least access to applications, the report said.

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