Updated: What is Contact Tracing and How Does the COVID Alert App Work?

By Logan Bright Modified on August 07, 2020

Find out how contact tracing can help protect yourself and others during the pandemic.

A Canadian student gets the lowdown on national and provincial contact tracing strategies in Canada for the fall 2020 semester in September.

Update: The COVID Alert app has launched

COVID Alert is the Android and iPhone app sponsored by the government of Canada built to help public health officials do contact tracing. By installing the app, you're doing your part to limit the spread of COVID-19. But how does the app work?

How does the COVID Alert app work?

COVID Alert runs using Bluetooth, the wireless tech that makes your speakers and headphones work. When you have COVID Alert, your phone exchanges a series of random codes with other nearby phones.

Each day, the app checks the codes you encountered against a list of those who have tested positive for COVID-19. If you've been near any of those codes in the past 14 days, you'll get an alert with guidance on how to proceed.

Ontario's the first province where you can report a COVID-19 diagnosis through the app. Other provinces will follow suit soon. Even so, it's still valuable for those outside Ontario to download the app! Keep it on your phone for the duration of the pandemic.

What's with the codes?

When a person tests positive for COVID-19, healthcare professionals give them a specific, randomly-generated code, which they can input into COVID Alert. This lets anyone who was near that person in the past two weeks know they could have been exposed to the virus.

What about my privacy?

Many digital privacy groups have expressed concern about apps like COVID Alert, which was developed by the combined forces of Google and Apple — a rare example of corporate teamwork that speaks to the serious of COVID-19. The developers have worked hard to ensure no personally-identifiable data is tracked or stored. The app doesn't access GPS or location data.

In practice, this means the app has no way of knowing:

  • your location
  • your name or address
  • any contacts in your phone
  • your health info
  • the health info of anyone else

The app is focused only on scanning for and trading randomized codes through Bluetooth. The government of Canada offers even more info on privacy protections if you want to go deeper.

The app itself is open source, meaning anyone can check out the code on GitHub (presuming you can make sense of it!). Even the server is open source.

Just one tool in the toolbox

Remember, COVID Alert can help you stay safe and informed about the virus, but it can't protect you entirely. The app is one part of the public health fight against the pandemic. Be sure you're vigilant on the old standbys, like masks, hand washing, and physical distancing.

Reach out to medical professionals or healthcare providers if you get sick, and follow manual contact tracing guidelines if asked.

Together, we'll get through this pandemic — eventually! — but it's going to require effort and sacrifice from all of us. Installing the COVID Alert app no matter where you are in the country is an important step toward protecting yourself and the health of others.

Stay safe!

Learn more about COVID-19

If you're following news of the pandemic, you've probably heard about contact tracing. Contact tracing is a process for identifying people who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus — who are then at higher risk of illness.

In June, Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced a new national contact tracing app that will be tested in Ontario before being rolled out across the country.

How will the contact tracing app work?

The app, which is being developed by Canadian tech firms Shopify and Blackberry, uses Bluetooth to talk between devices near one another.

When a person with the app who has tested positive for COVID-19 comes close enough to another app user, the app will register the contact. The app builds a model network of all the cascading contacts a person might have with others.

A healthcare professional will help those who test positive anonymously upload their info to the network. The app will then ping any others who've been in contact, offering info and advice and encouraging them to contact public health officials.

The experiment starts in Ontario

Before partnering with the federal government, Ontario had begun work on its own contact tracing app. Now, as the country's most populous province, Ontario will be first to connect those who test positive with the app.

Once the app is officially rolled out, it will be available to any Canadian who wants to use it. The app will work on both Android and Apple phones, and the prime minister stressed the tech is more effective the more people who use it.

To account for local public health advice and conditions, the app will be customized for each province that signs on, the prime minister said. He called for a co-ordinated national effort on contact tracing.

Alberta, on the other hand, has been experimenting with a contact tracing app for weeks. In May, Alberta launched the ABTraceTogether app. Like the national app, it's voluntary, doesn't track your location, and the data is totally anonymized. ABTraceTogether is part of Alberta's efforts to re-open the province.

The old-fashioned way

Contact tracing is not a new idea, but it's generally been done by hand. Healthcare pros have traditionally sat down with spreadsheets and telephones to do contact tracing. An app makes all this much easier.

Provinces across the country already employ dozens of contact tracers, while Statistics Canada has even offered its services to help with phone calls.

Still, an app isn't a catch-all solution: instead, it's one tool of many for combatting COVID-19.

Privacy and data security

There are concerns about current privacy laws and whether safeguards are in place to protect Canadians' data should something go wrong with the app. The Privacy Commissoner's office is developing advice for the government but hasn't yet released its recommendations.

The government is also setting up an external advisory board to provide accountability on the app. The contact tracing app won't capture location data, which is a good sign for privacy advocates.

What does contact tracing mean for you?

In May, a survey of 2,000 Canadians found a majority approved of making an anonymous app mandatory. Even so, the app in development will be opt-in — meaning you'll have to choose to download it.

As part of a return to on-campus learning for the fall semester in September, contact tracing will be important. Schools may insist that anyone on campus, from student to faculty, use a contact tracing app, though this would be tough to enforce.

The national contact tracing app launches in Ontario on July 2, and as data comes in and bugs get worked out, should be available across Canada soon.

Be sure to sign up and download the app so you can do your part to support Canada's coronavirus response and help get the world back on track!

Learn more about COVID-19

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