Canada’s COVID-19 Alert App Faces Criticism For Potentially Excluding Some From Using It

On Friday, Canada rolled out their COVID-19 app to try and control the spread of COVID-19. Called COVID Alert, it uses the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API to let users know if they have been exposed to the virus. But it is coming under criticism that the apps requirements exclude people from using it, which means that the app will be less effective:

However, the application 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.

Marit Stiles, an Ontario MPP, says her parents weren’t able to download the app and questioned its wider accessibility for vulnerable and senior Canadians.

Let’s dig into this. The app requires iOS 13.5 or Android 6 to use. That’s because those are the versions that have the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API. On the iOS side of the fence, iOS 13.5 is supported by the iPhone 6S and up. That’s millions of iPhones. So if you have one of those phones, you need to make sure your phone is updated to the latest version of iOS. Though I will admit that that if you don’t have at least an iPhone 6S, that’s a problem as you are shut out from using the app.

It’s actually worse on the Android side of the fence. Depending on the Android phone that you have, you may not be able to get the updates that you need to run this app. And that’s true even if you have phone from a brand like Samsung. That’s because the carriers and the phone companies often have to play a very interesting dance in terms of getting updates to your phone. So much so that it may take months to have an update appear. Now if you have a Google or OnePlus device, the situation is a bit better as those companies push updates directly to phones like Apple does. Samsung does this to a limited degree as well. But the situation for any Android is not good.

So, how do you fix this? I think that what needs to happen is that the Canadian government needs to push Google who makes the Android OS to work with a broader array of phones by forcing phone makers and carriers who often control what updates phones get to rollout the Exposure Notification API quickly to as many phones brands as possible. And in the case of Apple, I would say that they need to port the Exposure Notification API to iOS 12 which would allow phones that don’t run iOS 13.5 to run notification apps like COVID Alert. Both of these moves would make the app far more effective as more people will be able to use this app. Hopefully this happens quickly so that this app can help to keep the curve flat.

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