A smart and ethical contact-tracing app to fight COVID-19

As part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, like nearly 100 countries around the world, Canada is considering the use of a contact-tracing application.

The app developed by Montreal-based Mila, the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute formed as part of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, will use "smart " technology that would go beyond traditional methods of predicting an individual’s risk of infection to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But why develop such an app? What are the implications for fundamental rights and freedoms? Could it be used as an instrument of mass surveillance? These are legitimate questions that deserve answers.

Mila’s approach to contact tracing differs from others in its underlying philosophy, its goals, and its methods. The idea behind Mila’s app is to empower individuals by giving them predictive information so they can safeguard their own health and that of their loved ones, allowing them to be active participants in the fight against the virus. It provides users with relevant and personalized recommendations and improves their understanding of infection risks. Its predictive capabilities make it possible to alert potentially infected users before they develop symptoms of the disease, the point at which they are most contagious but don’t know it. The app can also help public health officials track the progress of the pandemic by transmitting additional epidemiological data that could let them see flare-ups of the virus coming.

But no technology is neutral. That’s why ethical principles and democratic values must be taken into consideration from the earliest stages of designing artificial intelligence systems and applied to guide their legitimate use. Mila researchers contributed to the Montreal Declaration for the Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence (2018) and its principles served as the ethical guidelines for designing this app, which is thus a real-world test of these principles. The app is also being developed within the more general framework of Canada’s Digital Charter (2019) and scrupulously complies with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). It is also in accordance with the recent recommendations of the report of the Expert Advisory Group on Society, Technology & Ethics in a Pandemic (STEP), convened by CIFAR at the request of Canada’s Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer, which stresses the necessity for transparency, openness and security for the launch of any apps. 

To respect users’ autonomy and fundamental freedoms, the app encourages them to take the right steps but does not force them to do so. Democracy means power to the people and in this case it is indeed each person’s choice which will determine our collective outcome, rather than a top-down mandatory order. Neither installation nor use of the app will be mandatory. The application cannot be used for surveillance. The most sensitive data stays on the user’s device. Users will have to give their consent to install the app and give permission at every stage for the app to access their information.

In accordance with ethical and legal principles of privacy protection, all personal information entered on the user’s device will be encrypted using the most secure technology and will not be transmitted to third parties that could use it to identify individuals. Government agencies will not be able to use the app for surveillance purposes and the data will be anonymized and encrypted to prevent unauthorized access. The data will be managed by an independent, not-for-profit organization created for the sole purpose of supporting Canada’s fight against COVID-19 and safeguarding users’ health, dignity and privacy. The collected information will never be used for commercial purposes and will be erased when the pandemic is over. 

Some people are worried that the app may not be fully transparent and may not do only what its developers claim. There is no cause for concern: in accordance with principles of transparency and accountability, the code for the algorithms will be open source. Any country that wants to protect its citizens using this code will be able to use it for free.

In the global strategy against the spread of COVID-19, this app is a tool that strengthens individuals’ capabilities and enables them to work together to confront the health and social impacts of the pandemic. Only by voluntarily adopting it and pooling our knowledge and relevant health data can we derive real benefits from this technology for all Canadians.

Marc-Antoine Dilhac

Professor of philosophy at Université de Montréal and initiator of the Montreal Declaration for the Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence

Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Yoshua Bengio

Professor of computer science at Université de Montréal and Scientific Director of Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute

Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Irina Rish

Professor in the Computer Science and Operations Research department at the Université de Montréal

Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Richard Janda

Professor in the Faculty of Law at McGill University and Associate Member, McGill School of Environment

Joumana Ghosn

Artificial-intelligence researcher and Director of Applied Research on Automatic Learning at Mila

Stéphane Borreman

Emergency-room physician at the MUHC and Chief Medical Officer, Logibec

Valérie Pisano

President and CEO, Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute

Benjamin Prud’homme

Executive Director, AI for Humanity at Mila and co-founder of Québec inclusif