The COVID Alert app is seen on an iPhone in Ottawa, on Friday, July 31, 2020. The app tracks the locations of phones relative to other phones, and notifies users if they have been in proximity to another app user who has tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The COVID Alert app is seen on an iPhone in Ottawa, on Friday, July 31, 2020. The app tracks the locations of phones relative to other phones, and notifies users if they have been in proximity to another app user who has tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Rollout of COVID-19 Alert app faces criticism over accessibility

App requires users to have Apple or Android phones made in the last five years, and a relatively new operating system

The federal government’s COVID-19 contact tracing app is facing criticism for its download requirements, which restrict some Canadians from accessing and using the app.

The free “COVID Alert” app, which became available on Friday, is designed to track the location of phones relative to each other, without collecting personal data anywhere centrally.

Users are notified if their phones have recently been near the phone of a person who later volunteers that they have tested positive for COVID-19.

But the app requires users to have Apple or Android phones made in the last five years, and a relatively new operating system.

Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy, says that makes the app inaccessible for older Canadians and other marginalized groups.

“The worst affected by (the pandemic) are Black, Indigenous, people of colour, people who often have a lower socio-economic bracket. Who’s not going to be able to install the application? That same group … that’s a problem,” he said.

Parsons says criticism should be directed at the federal government, not those who designed the app.

He believes the technical aspects of the application, such as its ease of use and its performance in both official languages, has been done well.

“On the technical end, the developers deserve to be congratulated,” he said. “This is a failure of policy. The government should have seen this, I hope someone has, they should have predicted it, I hope someone has, and they should have done something to try and start fixing it.”

The issue of needing an app that works with older smartphones was known from the start, he added.

READ MORE: National COVID-19 exposure alert app now available to download

For a contact tracing app to properly work, he said, it requires 65 to 80 per cent of all Canadians to use it. The current version of the app makes that impossible.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat referred questions about the technical requirements of the app to Google and Apple, but noted the application is only one tool to slow the spread of COVID-19.

It did not address a question about a potential timeline for the issue to be fixed.

Ontario NDP legislator Marit Stiles took to Twitter to share her parents’ frustration in attempting to download the app.

Stiles’ parents, both in their 70s, tried to download the app on their older iPhones, but it didn’t work.

“They’re so frustrated that they can’t download the app, the app won’t work on their phone,” she said in an interview Sunday. “This kind of surprised me.”

Stiles said this raises some concerns about the accessibility for more vulnerable Canadians.

“I think everybody agrees the app isn’t a bad idea,” she said. “We know that elderly folks, seniors, new Canadians, racialized people are the most likely to contract or be affected by COVID-19 … then it might be a bit problematic that the app only works with the fanciest or priciest new phones.”

For now, the smart phone app is only linked to the Ontario health-care system, with the Atlantic provinces set to be the next provinces to link up.

Neither Apple nor Google returned requests for comment on the issue.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusTechnology

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Delta Police Department photo)
North Delta youth calls 911 after accruing $7K in online gaming charges

‘Police spoke with the student about appropriate times to call 911’

Curator Colleen Sharpe (left) and cultural exhibits technician John Bessette sit in a new interactive exhibit at the Museum of Surrey. “Dine on Time” tells the story of Surrey’s diner culture from the ’30s to the ’60s. (Photo submitted)
New diner exhibit serves local history at Museum of Surrey

‘Dine on Time’ offers glimpse into Surrey’s 1930s to 1960s diner culture

Image Surrey.ca
Surrey council resurrects, fast-tracks 84th Avenue connection at Bear Creek Park

The city put the brakes on this project in 2007 because of community opposition

The South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce hosted a COVID-19-related webinar Friday.
Vaccine rollout, supporting local businesses focus of virtual town-hall event

Zoom webinar hosted by South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

An official investigation will be launched after VPD officers were recorded posing near a dead body at Third Beach on Wednesday morning, Feb. 24. (Screen grab/Zachary Ratcliff)
VIDEO: Vancouver officers under review for allegedly laughing, taking pictures next to dead body

Two officers were caught on video by a local beachgoer Wednesday morning in Stanley Park

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
‘Stay local’: Dr. Henry shoots down spring break travel for British Columbians

B.C. is reportedly working with other provincial governments to determine March break policies

“Our biggest challenge has been the amount of vaccine,” said FNHA acting chief medical officer Dr. Shannon McDonald. (First Nations Health Authority Facebook photo)
All First Nations on reserve to be vaccinated by end of March: First Nations Health Authority

Vaccinations continuing for B.C. First Nations amid shortages

Site C will go ahead, one year later and $5.3 billion more, the NDP announced Feb 26. (BC Hydro image)
B.C. NDP announces Site C will go ahead with new $16B budget

Reviews recommend more oversight, beefed up foundation stability work

The last three wild northern spotted owls live near the Spuzzum Watershed outside of Hope. The province recently ordered a halt to logging for at least a year to give the owls a chance to survive.  (Photo/Jared Hobbs)
Logging halted in northern spotted owl habitat near Hope

Halt will last at least a year, gives time to formulate survival plan for Northern Spotted Owl

Several BC Ferries sailings are cancelled Friday morning due to adverse weather. (Black Press Media File)
Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay ferry sailing cancelled due to high winds, sea state

Adverse weather causes cancellations across several BC Ferries routes

The BC Prosecution Service announced last year that it was appointing lawyer Marilyn Sandford as a special prosecutor to review the case, following media inquiries about disclosure issues linked to a pathologist involved in the matter. (Black Press Media files)
Possible miscarriage of justice in B.C. woman’s conviction in toddler drowning: prosecutor

Tammy Bouvette was originally charged with second-degree murder but pleaded guilty in 2013 to the lesser charge

A kid in elementary school wearing a face mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Metro Creative)
Union asks why an elementary school mask rule wouldn’t work in B.C. if it does elsewhere

B.C. education minister announced expansion of mask-wearing rules in middle, high school but not elementary students

Most Read