Canadian Digital Service urges people to open COVID Alert daily to make sure it’s working

Some phones will put the app to sleep, stopping it from properly running background exposure checks

In a series of tweets, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) urged Canadians with the COVID Alert app installed on their phones to open it at least once a day. CDS warned that some phones can prevent the app from running background checks, and that some users behaviours can also interfere with app functionality. Opening COVID Alert can alert users to these issues.

CDS explained that some phones will put apps to sleep to save battery. If this happens to COVID Alert, it can prevent the app from properly running the background checks needed to warn users of potential exposure to COVID-19. “Research and discussion with our partners, Google, have shown technical updates to the app aren’t likely to change this,” CDS explained in a tweet.

The strict app controls that contribute to the problem CDS addressed in its tweets are a known issue and a frustrating problem. Many Android manufacturers intentionally break existing controls on how background apps function and implement their own custom settings. While these can sometimes improve battery life, they almost always have significant impacts on user experience and cause many apps to not work properly.

A website called ‘Don’t Kill My App‘ details which manufacturers are the worst offenders. Samsung recently moved to the top of the list, which is especially concerning given its popularity. Other top offenders (excluding manufacturers that typically don’t sell phones in Canada) include OnePlus, Huawei and Asus. Google tried to tamp down on this with the release of Android 11, but clearly, it hasn’t stopped manufacturers from killing apps. It’s been a known issue with exposure notification apps like Canada’s COVID Alert and, going by the CDS, will continue to be a problem going forward.

The other issue is user-related. CDS says that some users will change settings on their phones, like turning off Bluetooth or data, which can disrupt the functionality of COVID Alert. If a critical feature like Bluetooth is disabled and you open the COVID Alert app, it will show a warning and prompt you to turn Bluetooth on again.

Another nail in the COVID Alert coffin

Although regularly opening COVID Alert can mitigate these issues, I don’t see many people actually doing that. COVID Alert has arguably been another failed attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Apple and Google’s exposure notification project was, in theory, a good idea — nearly everyone has a smartphone, so why not leverage it to privately and securely warn people about potential exposure to a deadly virus so they can get tested and take precautions to avoid spreading it to more people?

Unfortunately, as with so many other solutions, poor messaging, misinformation and lack of adoption effectively killed COVID Alert before it had a chance to be effective. Alberta, B.C., Nunavut and Yukon have not adopted COVID Alert, although Alberta made its own contact tracing app. Alberta’s ‘ABTraceTogether’ had only managed to track 20 cases as of November 2020, making it a bigger failure than COVID Alert.

In April 2021, a report indicated the majority of Canadians had not downloaded COVID Alert. While lack of national adoption was likely a factor, rampant misinformation about the app also kept many people from using it. From the start, people shared fears that COVID Alert was a government plot to track people’s location (it wasn’t) or monitor who you interacted with (it didn’t). Not to mention various technical issues that prevented COVID Alert from working on some older devices.

COVID Alert’s effectiveness relies on mass adoption. Canada’s COVID Alert website says the app was downloaded more than 6.5 million times. Statistics Canada estimated the country had a population of slightly more than 38 million as of the beginning of this year.

Ultimately, the CDS asking people to open COVID Alert daily to make sure it’s working properly is just the latest nail in the app’s coffin. I wish that wasn’t the case, but wishes don’t count for much.