More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Do you have the COVID Alert app on your iPhone? It might not be working
by Thomas Daigle, CBC News
Dec 11, 2020


The federal government launched the COVID Alert app on July 31. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

A bug affecting Canada's COVID Alert app has not been entirely fixed as federal officials first announced, leaving an unknown number of iPhone users still without exposure notifications.

Last week, CBC News reported a glitch prevented the app from functioning properly on some smartphones for much of November. The federal agency developing the app initially said an update released on Nov. 23 fixed the problem.

A Health Canada representative has now acknowledged the fix only solved the problem on Android devices, and "there are some instances of something similar happening" on iPhones. The glitch leaves open the possibility that some users with an Apple device have not received notice to seek a COVID-19 test or self-isolate in a timely manner.

COVID Alert is designed to take note when two users spend at least 15 minutes less than two metres apart. If a user later tests positive for COVID-19, they can use the app to anonymously notify contacts of potential exposure.

Lucie Vignola, a director of Health Canada's COVID-19 task force, declined to provide a timeline for when the issue may be resolved. She also said built-in privacy features prevent officials from knowing how many iPhones may be affected.


When the COVID Alert app is functioning properly, it should display a thumbs-up and the message 'You're all set' or 'No exposure detected.' (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"The priority was to focus on the fix for Android because it was a more widespread issue," Vignola said in an interview. "Now that that has been dealt with, we're looking at the iOS fix," referring to Apple's smartphone operating system.

Health Canada's acknowledgement appears to contradict a statement issued last week by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which houses the app's development team at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS).

At the time, a spokesperson said "the fix was issued by Apple and Google." An update was indeed released on Nov. 23, but it was not made clear that the fix failed to repair the malfunction in all iPhones.

Open the app
Vignola suggested iPhone users should "open up the app every couple of days just to make sure that it's working properly." This represents a shift in the way many Canadians use the app, which has been promoted as a means to help curb the spread of the coronavirus while simply running in the background.

"It's something you can just download and forget about," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June when he announced the app would be coming soon.

Users are now being told the opposite: don't forget about the app, and do ensure it's working.

Vignola said on some smartphones, there was a risk COVID Alert wouldn't run in the background if it wasn't opened once in a while, in which case the device would classify it as a rarely used app.

Opening the app is meant to ensure the smartphone performs exposure checks — when a device communicates with a central server to determine whether any close contacts reported a COVID-19 diagnosis. COVID Alert is supposed to send a notification, without prompting from the user, if they've been in proximity to someone who later tested positive.

"Opening your app will also trigger checks in your phone. It's a good thing to do," the CDS tweeted on Tuesday.

A federal government COVID Alert information page was updated on Oct. 30 to say, "Make sure to open the app once a day." This is not among the information presented when someone installs COVID Alert.

Signs the problem started earlier
The CDS and Health Canada have not confirmed when the bug first appeared. Last week, a federal spokesperson said the glitch had first been reported to officials in early November.

Other users have since suggested their app stopped working much earlier.

Liliane Keryluk, a civil servant in Ottawa, showed CBC News her device logs indicating her iPhone had not carried out exposure checks for more than two months, from Sep. 10 to Nov. 21. She said her smartphone's Bluetooth, the wireless function on which the app relies, was enabled the entire time.

Keryluk said her ex-husband's device also displayed a more than two-month gap.

"It's disappointing," she said, "and it causes a bit of anxiety … maybe I was around someone who tested positive and I wasn't notified."

Users can look for themselves whether their smartphone has been carrying out exposure checks. However, the process involves several steps in the iPhone or Android device's settings, which may be unfamiliar to some users.

Andrew Urbaczewski, an associate professor in business information and analytics at the University of Denver who has studied similar apps in various countries, said adding extra steps will deter some users.

"People are basically lazy," he said in an email, pointing to the widespread use of easy-to-guess passwords and bank PINs such as "1234."

"If [users] are made to do one or two more steps, the likelihood of them knowing that they need to do these steps to have it be effective, deciding that it is worth the effort, and actually doing it correctly decreases with each of those levels."

He also said public health authorities in various jurisdictions are having a hard time getting significant uptake for such apps. In Canada, COVID Alert has been downloaded 5.66 million times, and more often on iPhones than Android smartphones, according to data published by the Ontario government.

Ritesh Kotak, a Toronto-based software and cybersecurity expert, suggested the shift in guidance was less significant.

"There will be times where apps just stop working," he said, and checking COVID Alert regularly will just serve to confirm it's still functioning.

New features
On Thursday, COVID Alert was updated to include two new features. Users can now disable the app without turning off Bluetooth, a feature geared toward health-care workers who wear protective equipment on the job.

And users who receive an exposure notification now have a way of clearing it from their screen after they receive their own negative test result. Previously, the notification would remain on screen for several days.

Health Canada has also said COVID Alert may soon be made available in languages other than English and French.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Make sure your app is up to date:

To check this, go to the App Store or Google Play Store and search for “COVID Alert.” If the app’s not updated, you should see an option to update. If the only option is to open, it means your app is up to date.

If you’ve updated the app and it’s still not checking:

  1. Open the app, and if the app hasn’t checked recently, it will force a check.
  2. If that doesn’t work, “Force stop” the app and then reopen it.

To ensure exposure checks are working, look at your exposure logs (see below) in your phone’s settings. You may see a series of exposure checks happening at the same time as the app starts to catch up on the missed days.

How to check if your device supports the COVID-19 app:
COVID Alert uses the Apple-Google Exposure Notifications framework to allow Bluetooth to estimate distance from other phones. The framework is only available on the following operating systems:

  • iOS 13.5 or later versions
  • Android 6 and up, with updated Google Play Services

You can check to see if your phone will support the app.

On iPhones
Go to Settings, choose General, then choose About. If the Software Version is 13.5 or higher, your iPhone can support COVID Alert.

On Android phones
Go to Settings, then choose Google. If your phone supports COVID Alert, you'll see COVID-19 Exposure Notifications at the top of the screen. If you do not see this option, try updating your operating system and your Google Play Services, if the updates are available for your phone.

Problem enabling some Android phones
Some Android users have told us when they try to enable the app, nothing happens. We're looking into this problem. It looks like it may be an issue with phones that are not running Google Play Services.

iPhone notifications do not match the app's home screen
Some iPhone users receive weekly notifications with a number of potential exposures. These notifications are not sent from COVID Alert, but from your iPhone's operating system. If you receive one of these notifications, open COVID Alert to check your exposure status before taking action.

If you upgrade to iOS 13.7 or 14, these notifications will instead provide a monthly reminder the app is working. If you would prefer not receiving these reminders, you can turn off the monthly notifications in your phone's settings.

To turn off monthly notifications if you have iOS 13.7 or 14:
Go to Settings, choose Exposure Notifications, then scroll down and turn off Monthly Update.

Older phones
COVID Alert is compatible with Apple or Android phones released within the past 5 years. These phone requirements are set by Apple and Google. Unfortunately, older phones cannot support the new operating systems required by the Exposure Notifications framework.

COVID Alert is one part of our public health effort to limit COVID-19. The app does not replace manual contact tracing by local public health authorities. Manual contact tracing is available to everyone in Canada, along with other important resources.

Location and Android phones
If your phone is using Android 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10, you need to turn on Location for COVID Alert to work. In Android 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, to use Bluetooth scanning, Android phones need Location setting on for all apps.

While COVID Alert has no way of knowing where you are, Google may have access to your location. You can use the lowest accuracy option for Location and turn off Google Location History.

If your phone has upgraded to Android 11, it can run COVID Alert without needing Location turned on.

You can check the app's permissions in your phone's settings. You'll see that COVID Alert does not have permission to use location services.

How to check if it's working:
If you're wondering if the app is working correctly, you can look for the exposure logs in your phone's settings. The app checks for exposures every day when it's connected to the Internet, from 1 to 6 times per day.

On iPhones
The exact way you can check if the app is working depends on the iOS version on your phone.

On iOS 13.7 or 14
Go to Settings, choose Exposure Notifications, then Exposure Logging Status. Tap Exposure Checks to see when your phone last checked for exposures.

On iOS 13.5 or 13.6
Go to Settings, then choose Privacy, then Health, then COVID-19 Exposure Logging. Tap Exposure Checks to see when your phone has checked for exposures.

On Android phones
Go to Settings, then choose Google, then COVID-19 Exposure Notifications. There you'll see the last time the app checked for exposures.
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