We know that for most things, “there’s an app for that,” but few of us could have seen this app coming. 

The federal government announced last week that it is partnering with Apple, Google, Blackberry, and volunteers from Shopify to develop a contact-tracing smartphone app called “COVID Alert.” Ontario, where the app was developed, will be the first to pilot it: the government says it should be available for download as soon as July 3. 

The idea is simple: the app runs in the background while you go about your day. When you spend a certain amount of time near another app user, your phones will exchange unique, anonymized beacons via Bluetooth technology. If you test positive for COVID-19, public health will provide a code that you can input into the app. All close contacts from the last 14 days will receive a notification that they may have been in contact with the coronavirus and should take necessary precautions. In a global pandemic, where contact tracing can prove tedious, it is easy to see the potential upside. 

Much of the public discussion around these technologies has focused on privacy concerns, and with good reason. Many people are hesitant to give a government app permission to track who they have been in contact with.  More importantly, these apps will handle personal health information with potentially life-altering consequences. Data security must be nothing less than airtight. 

The government and its partners acknowledge that privacy must be paramount if the app is going to have the type of voluntary uptake needed for its effectiveness. And they’ve put effort into doing that: the app will not use GPS location data; data transmission will be anonymized; and participation will be voluntary and can be rescinded at any time. Privacy experts are cautiously supportive. However, one group of potential app users deserves special consideration: children and youth.

Will people under 18 be allowed to download or delete the app, with or without parental consent? Should they use the app, given the potential positive and negative impacts on them? What information will they be given about how the app works and what to do if they give or get an alert? Will they trust it? 

Prime Minister Trudeau calls COVID Alert an app “that you can download, and then forget about.” Until you send a message to your friends or schoolmates reporting risk of infection, or receive a message out of the blue that says you may have been exposed to a deadly pathogen. 

To set the stage: it’s early September, and classes have just begun at your child’s local high school. Math class is underway when phones in the classroom and throughout the building started buzzing. All of them are sharing the same message: you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Students immediately start calling friends and parents; speculation begins to swirl about which student or staff member contracted it. The school administration goes into crisis mode: do they cancel the rest of the school day? What about the next 14 days? Within minutes, anxious students are packing up and leaving. So much for math class. 

Children in Canada already experience high rates of bullying, including cyberbullying. Those who test positive for COVID-19 may feel ostracized or further alienated during the age of “social distancing.” If normal adolescent behaviours like attending a party or sneaking out to see your boyfriend feel even more taboo during the pandemic, will a 14-year-old decide to leave their phone at home instead of risking that some government app might expose their privacy? 

For children in classrooms, group homes, densely populated buildings or neighbourhoods, and even small communities, privacy will remain an issue regardless of the app’s technology. In the UK, a proposed bill would allow a parent or guardian to install a contact-tracing app on the phone of a child under 16, but provides the child with the right to delete it “if they are of sufficient age and maturity to understand the consequences of these actions.” Has the same consideration been given to COVID Alert in Canada? 

The challenges are not insurmountable concerning children’s use of a contact-tracing app. Young people today are incredibly tech-savvy. Many of them have handled this crash course in epidemiology better than their parents have. As with other public health initiatives, the formula for success is straightforward: clear, consistent communication that provides individuals—including children—with the information and the agency they need to make their own decisions. 
Contact tracing is an important part of pandemic mitigation. That would be good news for kids if it allows schools and other youth spaces to re-open and stay open safely. 

By utilizing tools like the Child Rights Impact Assessment and increasing opportunities for young people to be heard, governments can avoid the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies. 

There’s a conversation for that.