Health Canada to immediately discontinue COVID Alert contact tracing app as rule changes limit usefulness

Health Canada announced on Friday that it would shut down its two-year-old COVID Alert contact-tracing app after changes to testing rules in many provinces made it useless for many Canadians.

The Globe and Mail first announced the federal government’s plans earlier this week. The app had only been downloaded by 6.9 million people by the time the federal government stopped releasing usage figures last February.

In a news release Friday morning, Health Canada said the app would be taken out of service immediately and users could remove the app from their devices.

[Ottawa to announce the end of troubled COVID Alert app this week, sources say]

Proponents of a cautious government policy on technology have spent the past few months agitating Ottawa, both publicly and privately, to shut down the app. Brenda McPhail, who oversees the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy and technology practice, was previously part of the Ottawa advisory group to oversee the app and sent a letter to officials early May urging them to decommission it.

“Good public technology stewardship and responsible innovation require the government to manage and maintain the app for the duration of the project, including shutting down the app and deleting data associated with it, now that ‘it no longer serves its stated purpose,’ Dr. McPhail wrote, according to a copy of the letter she shared with The Globe and Mail.

COVID Alert has relied on Canadians who have received positive infection notifications from PCR tests to receive one-time use codes from health authorities and voluntarily upload them to the app. It was then supposed to notify any other user who had been near the infected person for more than 15 minutes.

But British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut opted out of using the app, while Canadians downloaded just 57,704 codes in February as the country faced more than three million infections. That number is now closer to four million.

Interest in the app plummeted further in light of the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 late last year. The swarm of infections prompted many health authorities to stop relying on government-backed PCR tests and start mass-distributing rapid antigens. The results of these home tests are both less accurate than PCR tests and difficult, if not impossible, for health authorities to collect.

Ottawa had always planned to decommission the app when the pandemic subsided, but the rise of new variants and stagnating vaccination rates prompted governments around the world to shift from trying to end the pandemic to learning to live with safely.

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