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National contact tracing app begins beta testing after delay

A Canadian smartphone app meant to warn users if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 is now in beta testing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June that it would be ready for testing just in Ontario starting early this month; the trial to look for bugs and other problems was delayed for reasons the government has never specified.

Now the Canadian Digital Service, an agency that puts federal services online, is asking people to sign up and put the app through its paces over two to four days.

“We’re testing the app, and not you,” the agency’s notice says. Participants will be asked to complete certain tasks with the app and report on how well it works for them.

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Spokesman Alain Belle-Isle said nearly 5,000 testers had joined the program by Thursday evening.

“The goal of the beta testing is to do larger-scale review with users and to find any remaining bugs before we launch,” he wrote in an email. The beta testing is to last until at least Sunday.

When it’s fully functional, the “COVID Alert” app is supposed to track phones’ locations relative to each other without collecting personal data anywhere centrally, using digital identifications unique to each phone.

5:02Are there privacy concerns with Canada’s new COVID-19 contact tracing app?
Are there privacy concerns with Canada’s new COVID-19 contact tracing app?

Then users can be told if their phones have recently been near the phone of a person who volunteers that they have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

In the test phase, the agency says, the app will send false alerts just to make sure the system works.

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After that, Belle-Isle wrote, Ontario’s provincial health authorities will be the first to distribute digital “keys” for people who test positive for COVID-19 to use so people who have been near them can receive alerts. Other provinces and territories will follow.

“The timeline for implementation will depend on the circumstances and contexts in each jurisdiction.”

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