Ottawa says no to Quebec’s Mila contaminated contact search application

The interest was there, but it is no longer there. The federal government prefers not to recommend the application for contact tracing of people contaminated by the coronavirus developed by the Quebec Institute of Artificial Intelligence (Mila) for national use, because of important questions raised by this a tool for protecting privacy and privatizing public data, several sources indicated to the Duty.

Quebec, for its part, says “continue its reflection” on this tool to control the spread of the pandemic, as on other proposals. But according to our sources, the government has a rather negative analysis of Mila’s offer.

Last week, The duty revealed that the Institute, which for several weeks has been touting its COVI application, based on artificial intelligence (AI) technology, is seeking to remove from state authority the management of personal data collected during this surveillance of citizens for public health purposes. Mila plans to place them in the opaque structure of a non-profit organization (NPO), even if the medical record, geolocation, age and sex of the users are part, among other things, of the necessary information the operation of its application.

The Institute also has close links with multinational private healthcare companies, including Novartis, but also with the capitalization of personal data, such as Facebook, IBM and Google.

“We have learned that the federal government could turn to another technology,” said Vincent Martineau, spokesperson for Mila, on Tuesday. Whatever the decision, the Mila team is extremely proud to contribute, through its innovation and daring, to advancing the social debate on new ways of using AI for the benefit of the population. We are convinced that society as a whole wins. “

In data | Our interactive content on COVID-19

A preliminary version of the COVI application was sent for evaluation to Ottawa two weeks ago, but the federal government would not have been thrilled by it and has since considered working with the provinces to recommend the tool less intrusive digital tracking developed by a volunteer team from Shopify in Ottawa.

This project uses existing technologies from Apple and Google to make contact notification.

“The main virtue of such technology is that it measures” digital handshakes “between smartphones without requiring location tracking, summarizes Étienne Brown, professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, in California, who took a critical look at the appearance of these applications. “In other words, the application will be able to tell you if you have been in contact with an infected person without tracking your individual movements. All it needs is to measure the distance between users. “

There is a choice between efficiency and privacy. In my opinion, this choice should be made with Canadians and not behind their backs.

Private life

The adoption of this application is also done on a voluntary basis. Like all of these surveillance products, it nevertheless worries privacy defenders because of the personal data kept by their managers.

Recall that Google’s business model is based on massive collection of data from these users in exchange for free. Apple, for its part, has created an environment in which its users are captive to increase its grip in people’s daily lives.

“The advisability of using such tools, in addition to the measures deployed by public health authorities, must be evaluated after analyzing the clinical relevance, security and privacy issues, the functionalities offered and the technologies used, “said a spokesperson for the provincial health ministry on Tuesday, while the office of Prime Minister François Legault said that” no decision has been made yet “, on whether to adopt ” a digital tracking application.

The Quebec Institute of Artificial Intelligence has been running an active campaign for several weeks to seduce the governments of Quebec and Canada with its application, the framework of which could later be used for other purposes. The data trust, organized within an NPO in the emergency of the pandemic, would be a first in the country. The private sector could benefit from it once established.

Persistent reviews

Experts consulted by The duty said COVI’s data could be managed by an independent government agency, a framework Mila did not contemplate.

The Institute also attracted the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbor, and Louise Otis, former judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal, appointed honorary president of COVI Canada respectively. and president of the board of directors of this NPO.

These appointments were made in the wake of persistent criticisms of respect for privacy and the ethical questions raised by this application regarding the privatization of the public data collected.

The effectiveness of digital tracking applications in the fight against COVID-19 is strongly questioned by several scientific studies, the magazine recently reported. Nature. According to a team from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, 60% of the population must download one in order to be able to benefit from it, a penetration rate which has only been exceeded to date in diets authoritative where downloads have been required.

On a voluntary basis, Iceland has the highest download rate in the world, at 40%, but the public health department of this island country believes that manual tracking is still more effective than digital monitoring.

The requirement to have a so-called smart phone, often in its most recent versions, to use these applications also reduces the effect of surveillance in populations at higher risk, such as the elderly or poor communities in society.

When it comes to technology, “there is a choice between efficiency and privacy,” says Etienne Brown. In my opinion, this choice should be made with Canadians and not behind their backs. “

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