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OTTAWA — The federal privacy commissioner says municipal leaders in Manitoba have been too enthusiastic about the new COVID Alert app, warning that forcing staff to download it undermines the trust needed to make the app effective.

"Any initiative by businesses or governments, including municipal governments, to compel people to use the app, may actually reduce trust in the app," commissioner Daniel Therrien told the Free Press on Thursday.

Therrien uses the app himself, and says it protects people’s privacy. But he said governments should ban employers from making downloads mandatory, and prevent businesses from using the app to screen customers and staff.

While Ottawa launched the app in July, Manitoba only authorized its use on Oct. 1. COVID Alert anonymously logs when one phone is near another app-user’s phone for 15 minutes, using anonymized codes.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, provincial authorities give them a password, which they enter to have the app send an alert to anyone who’s been in close contact over the past two weeks.

The alert notifies people they might have been exposed to the coronavirus, and gives them instructions on how to respond, as stipulated by their provincial government.

Within a day of being rolled out in Manitoba, leaders in cities such as Winnipeg and Selkirk compelled all staff with corporate smartphones to install the app.

"Not only do we want to ensure the safety of our staff, but also our community and our residents," Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said last week.

The Manitoba government has decided to encourage civil servants and employees of Crown corporations to install the app. On Wednesday, it sent a link to download the app to 7,350 phones used by staff, but didn't compel them to do so.

Therrien prefers the latter approach.

"The federal-provincial declaration that we issued a few months ago recommended strongly that the application be voluntary, i.e., consensual," the commissioner said.

"There is a link between voluntariness of using the app, leading to greater trust, leading to greater use. That may be jeopardized if there are too many efforts by third parties to compel people to use the application."

He noted that European countries have protections against compelling people to use the app and bar businesses from requiring customers or staff to display the app in order to enter buildings.

The City of Winnipeg did not respond when asked who had decided to order its staff to install the app, and how many smartphones that entails.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca