Quebec Rejects COVID Alert App, Decision Questioned by Ottawa

It appears the federal government’s plan to get more provinces on board to support the COVID Alert exposure notification app has hit a roadblock in Quebec.

The province says it won’t adopt the federal COVID Alert exposure notification app for now, citing its current contact tracing and testing capabilities are sufficient at this time.

CBC News reports Quebec is not shutting the door on COVID Alert, but instead, Premier François Legault says he would rather have an app made locally instead.

“We would prefer a Quebec company, but I don’t think this is our main argument,” Legault said on Tuesday. “Maybe in six months we will come to another decision,” he said.

The Premier also said there was a lack of support for COVID Alert in Quebec due to privacy concerns.

Thierry Bélair, a spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu, told CBC News the decision by Quebec is a puzzling one since COVID Alert does not record user data or GPS location.

“It’s also an additional tool we can use as we prepare for a possible increase in cases this fall. So why not make it available now in Quebec?” said Bélair.

COVID Alert uses the exposure notification framework from Apple and Google. The app uses Bluetooth in the background to have anonymous “handshakes” with other devices when exposure happens (within 2 metres for 15 minutes or more).

If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they can choose to anonymous alert others they have been in contact with, by obtaining a one-time code from their local health authority.

The COVID Alert app is open source, built by a team of volunteers from Ottawa’s Shopify and has been vetted by both federal and provincial privacy commissioners. It has been downloaded over two million times since launching in late July in Ontario.

Quebec Wants a Made-in-Quebec Contact Tracing App

Quebec’s minister responsible for digital transformation, Éric Caire, says the province wants a made-in-Quebec app. However, this will be a problem as Apple and Google are only allowing one app per country to use its Exposure Notification API, to prevent confusion of multiple apps.

Quebec appears to be following in the footsteps of Alberta in wanting its own contact tracing app leveraging Apple and Google’s API, which allows for Bluetooth to work in the system background. Alberta’s ABTraceTogether requires an iPhone screen to remain unlocked and on at all times for it to work properly, dubbed a privacy concern. Alberta says it plans to switch over to the COVID Alert app altogether.

An online public consultation in Quebec saw nearly 16,500 respondents chime in on using a contact tracing app for COVID-19. Results saw 77% noting such an app would be useful and 75% said they would install it.

Hearings held at the Institutions Committee in Quebec City, told a different story when it came to discussing the use of a contact tracing app.

“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,” read a report by hearing’s committee, citing how nearly all of the 18 experts testifying doubted whether contact tracing apps would be useful.

In response to Quebec’s decision, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he would ask the Premier to reconsider the rejection of COVID Alert.

“Just do it. It protects everyone,” said Ford, adding “It’s not a big deal.”

Even if your province or territory does not support COVID Alert, Ottawa says you should still download the app as it can still be effective.