The new Covid tracing app: privacy good, equity and access bad #Covidalertequity

(by Cate Creede and Susan Tarshis)

The Canadian government rolled out a new Covid tracing app in Ontario yesterday, encouraging everyone to download the app to anonymously track proximity, so if someone in your environment tests positive for covid, you can be notified immediately.

Fantastic idea, and we jumped on the bandwagon right away.

But then it became clear that this app doesn’t work for older phones — and by older phones, that includes Iphone 6. Which many, many, many people have.

Our friend Elena noted this first:

“Tried to but it won’t accept my iPhone 6 operating system. This means the app presents a barrier for anyone who relies on older phones. Many of those people are economically precarious and thus at higher risk. What could ideally be an important element of social cohesion has become in some ways another act of gatekeeping. I’m a bit dismayed and hope a fix is on the way.”

Her partner Alistair wrote to the app developer and got this response:

Thank you for your interest in COVID Alert. The exposure notification framework that COVID Alert relies upon is only available on Apple phones that have been released within the past 5 years.
Specifically, for iPhones, this means any model that is newer than an iPhone 6. The most recent software updates for iOS must be installed – iOS 13.5.
Bluetooth must be enabled on the phone for the exposure notification functionality to work.
The COVID Alert Team”

As Elena underlines, this is a major equity issue. The people most likely to have older phones are the people who are economically marginalized, which includes disabled, elderly and people with chronic illness — who are the people who are most at risk of severe consequences from Covid. Those are exactly the people in our world who noted that their phones don’t work with this.

Susan captures the structural inequities behind this:

“It seems that the feds and the tech humans are so focused on our fears around privacy that they forgot to have a lens around accessibility race and class. This seems to me to be another place that privilege has silently operated to exclude the people who need to be protected most. Those of us with up to date phones, who, let’s face it, fling our information at the corporate vultures with barely a glance at that consent, are all twitchy around being tracked for public health and the developers knew it. But, likely because of who they are and where they are situated (I mean it’s tech, mostly white and affluent and male) they did not consider that energy had to ALSO be put into accessibility. Which means more versions of the app so you can run it on an iPhone 4 or 5. The people in my circle who have old phones and can’t download the app are the vulnerable ones, the ones on disability, with tight budgets or who work in difficult, exposes, lower wage jobs. And yes these are ALSO the people that the greater society criticizes if they DO have a fancy phone. This needs to be rectified and the easiest way is to produce another version. There’s a rover going to Mars FFS. How hard can this be?”

So: get active on this. Send the message that “The CovidAlert app is a great idea, but write a version that works with older phones so we can protect the most vulnerable Canadians.”

Send an email to the help page of the app:

Tweet about it, with the hashtags #covidalert and #covidalertequity

Write to the prime minister’s office:

Do it right now.

6 thoughts on “The new Covid tracing app: privacy good, equity and access bad #Covidalertequity

  1. Our tracing app here in Australia faced similar problems. On older phones it either didn’t work at all or you had to leave it running in the background (or sometimes with the screen on!) for it to work, absolutely draining your battery in a few hours. Surely they could have designed it quite simple to work on most phones. Not like it’s super high end gaming tech or anything!

  2. Sorry, it seems scammers are using the government’s phone number to call people to ask for their personal information. It is still important to stay vigilant and not give out your personal information if you did not initiate the phone call.

  3. The app rolled out to quickly and will have glitches. The app doesn’t work with all phone operating systems. And it makes me nervous for the accuracy of the data being presented. Does a false positive or false negative get calculated into the app? So much to worry about

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