Canada's Shopify, BlackBerry develop COVID-19 contact tracing app with local governments

TORONTO/OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian technology firms Shopify Inc and Blackberry Ltd have been working with provincial and federal governments on a coronavirus contact tracing app expected to launch in July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday.

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The app is set to roll out nationally after a launch in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, currently slated for July 2.

Test-and-trace programs have emerged as an important tool to identify and contain the spread of the coronavirus, becoming more urgent as Canadian provinces gradually reopen their economies after three months of lockdown. On Thursday, Canada officially hit 100,000 cases.

The app, called COVID Alert, will use Bluetooth connections to swap randomly generated codes with users in a geographic vicinity. Users who have tested positive for COVID-19 self-report their status within the app, using an eight-digit number from health officials to verify their positive result. The app then alerts other users who came into contact with them, according to provincial officials.

“Building this capacity will help us stop the virus in its tracks,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford told a separate briefing in Toronto.

Trudeau said a 50% uptake of the app would be “extraordinarily useful,” but added any amount would be helpful to better understand virus outbreaks.

Privacy of users has been a concern around contact tracing apps, but Ford said it is “100% private.”

Matthew Hatfield, campaigns director for OpenMedia, which advocates for digital rights, said the app underscored the government’s commitment to find a technological solution to COVID-19. But he said Canada’s outdated privacy laws give users no real “accountability or protections” should data be leaked.

The app was developed by the Ontario and Canadian governments, working with Shopify. It will undergo a security review by Blackberry.

On Thursday, Britain said it was switching to the Apple and Google model for its COVID-19 test-and-trace app after a locally developed system did not work well enough on Apple’s iPhone.

Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Moira Warburton in Toronto; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown