Since Google and Apple launched their joint exposure notification platform in May, countries across the globe have begun releasing apps that will inform their residents if they’ve come into contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. The platform is designed with privacy in mind and does not collect personal data. But less considered, it seems, is whether people will be able to access these apps. Now, as they roll out, citizens are having to contend with whether their phone is new enough to participate in the notification system.
In the U.S., five states have launched apps so far. As of a week ago, Virginia, the first U.S. state to launch an app on the platform, had over 300,000 downloads for a population of roughly 8.5 million, according to local news reports. The Apple-Google platform is also being used by a growing list of countries around the world, including Germany, Ireland, and Canada. The latter made its exposure notification app available to citizens in Ontario as a test case for the rest of the country at the end of July. To date, of Canada’s 37.6 million residents, only two million have downloaded the app. The Canadian Digital Service has not specified whether that two million are all among Ontario’s 14.5 million citizens or from around the country.
In normal times, attracting two million downloads in the span of a few weeks would be impressive for a new app. However, this app, designed to alert individuals to a possible COVID-19 exposure in the middle of a pandemic, will need greater buy-in to make a serious impact.
Researchers have found it doesn’t take much as much penetration for contact tracing to have a beneficial effect as previously thought. The University of Oxford released a model in April in which its researchers stated that the pandemic could be stopped if 60% of people adopted a contact tracing app. However, as the MIT Technology Review reports, those researchers also say that as little at 15% adoption could still help keep infection rates down. Already, about 5% of Canada’s population has downloaded the app and it’s only turned on in one province.
But there’s a large barrier to achieving adoption, especially among at-risk populations. In a tweet announcing the launch of its COVID Alert app, the Canadian Digital Service noted that users must have an Apple or Android phone purchased within the past five years. In the responses to the announcement, several people complained that the app was not compatible with the iPhone 6, which was released in 2014.
Need an app that will work on older phone models too, such as iPhone 6 so that more Canadians can protect themselves and their families – shouldn’t be only for those who can afford the latest technology.
— kmckenna (@aliaskmck) August 1, 2020
In response to one comment, the CDS wrote, “During this crisis the government recognizes that not everyone will be able to use this app. However, this is just one tool among many to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
The problem is that low-income Canadians, who may not have access to the latest phones, have been hit hardest by the virus. “[The app] primarily only serves those that are in high income households that can afford expensive smartphones and data plans,” says Sarah Villeneuve, a policy analyst at the Canadian think tank Brookfield Institute. “In Ontario and Toronto specifically, it’s really the low income communities that are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 and those are the people who would benefit the most from the app’s use, but they are typically unable to access the app due to the requirements for the operating system.”
She says there also hasn’t been much consideration for how accessible this technology is for people who aren’t very digitally literate. This may be particularly concerning for older populations, which also are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Instead, says Villeneuve, much attention has been paid to the platform’s privacy.
In April, Canadian privacy expert Ann Cavoukian told CTVNews that it was important that an exposure notification app not collect any data that could somehow be traced back to the individual. The burden of proof that the app will indeed be private is high in particular for Google, which has a business model that relies on collecting personal data to better target ads. In launching this platform, the two companies decided to make it open source, giving developers the ability to verify its data privacy policies.
To exchange information without divulging someone’s identity or health status, the platform uses Bluetooth to signal whether a phone has been in significant proximity to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. While public health departments can send out information about cases onto the platform, they don’t receive information back about who has been in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. The only way health officials find out about new cases is if a person gets tested. Still, critics have not entirely been satisfied. The Android version of the platform requires the location tracking service to be on, frustrating some government officials.
Very disappointed to discover that the app will not work with an iPhone 6.
— Brenda Adams (@marketingrrl) July 31, 2020
The hope is that such privacy controls will lead to higher download rates, though in Canada’s case it’s not yet clear how well adopted the app will become and by whom. The newer operating system requirements mean it could be a tool to keep Canada’s wealthier residents safe, but do little to ensure the safety of its less-resourced citizens.
But we may never know who benefits from this app due to Google and Apple’s privacy-first approach. While it may be effective for keeping people’s data safe, it’s not clear how governments will track whether the app has convinced a person to self-isolate or go in for a test after the app has notified them of potential exposure.
This framework also obfuscates the areas in which the app may be having the most impact. “The Canadian government itself hasn’t specified a threshold for which it would consider the app would be effective or ineffective,” says Villeneuve. “So it’s really hard to draw the line on how to measure that impact for ourselves.”