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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Gameplay demo preview – Polygon



Assassin’s Creed Valhalla might be the first Assassin’s Creed game to feel like it was born as an open-world RPG, rather than an open-world RPG that is also an Assassin’s Creed game. That’s fitting, since it comes from Ubisoft Montréal, which provided the blueprint for this change in Assassin’s Creed Origins.

This game’s development is also coming to a close during a time of seeming instability at Ubisoft. The Ubisoft Montréal studio’s creative director has recently taken a leave of absence after allegations of misconduct with women. The company at large is also hemorrhaging high-level employees after an internal investigation.

I recently sat down to remotely play three hours of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, in advance of its holiday 2020 launch. It’s incredibly difficult to get a handle on a game like this in only three hours. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, it was easy to spend six or seven hours on the first island alone, and Valhalla is supposed to be “even bigger,” which is unimaginable and seems like it will not scale if the series stays on its two-year release schedule.

But there you have it: In my three hours, I played what Ubisoft describes as “half a story arc,” in one region of the map. By the time I was done, I’d seen only a fraction of this world, and new map markers kept popping up.

What’s happening here?

The demo was mostly concerned with introducing the political intrigue of East Anglia. As is typical for Ubisoft’s PR strategy, larger questions about topics like Assassin lore, how the game explains its dual protagonists, and the modern storyline have been tabled, probably until Valhalla’s release. Apologies to everyone who still mourns Desmond Miles’ death-day.

Those god rays!!
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

I’m allowed a choice between a male or female Eivor, and I choose to play as a woman. Eivor’s Raven Clan hopes to settle in England, but wouldn’t you know, there is some tension between the Danes and the English, as well as between rival Viking clans. Eivor seems more even-keel than some previous Assassin’s Creed protagonists. At this point in the story, she’s well-established as a respected warrior and leader. If she has messier personality traits — like Bayek’s drive for vengeance, or Kassandra’s dirtbag humor — they don’t come through here. It might be that Eivor is simply stoic, unsentimental, and dutiful. Certainly the series has plenty of rambunctious hotheads, so why not feature someone who has their shit together?

Still, when attending a wedding during my playthrough, Eivor loosens up a bit to participate in the festivities, aka minigames. She drinks straight from a barrel of mead, and says it’s a “fool’s wager” to challenge her in a drinking game. She brags, but her confidence is quiet and clearly earned.

(Though not, it should be pointed out, by me: I fail at target practice, and at the rhythm-based drinking game.)

I also could not pass up the chance to try what Ubisoft has termed “Viking rap battles.” Flyting was just one of many, many activities available in East Anglia: Aside from the target practice and drinking game, there was also a meditative stone-stacking exercise. This gave me the feeling of being at a county fair, trying to decide between Whack-A-Mole or the milk bottle toss. Eivor is as confident about flyting as she is about everything else. In a match, my rival issues a spoken-word insult. I have a limited amount of time to select a rhyming comeback, which Eivor delivers with her husky voice. I crushed this.

I am good at flyting.

When I’m propositioned by a beardy Viking at the wedding, the demoist watching me play says that the same interaction will happen no matter what gender my character is. To this I say: hell yeah. In retrospect, I should have chosen to bone down so that I could report how the game handles sex scenes, but I was too shy to do that in front of a stranger.

The nugget of plot I’m given in the demo — a clash between Eivor and another Viking clan over who is the rightful king of East Anglia — doesn’t sing for me. I’ve been dropped into the game in media res, so whatever the political stakes are, I don’t have a great reason to care. What does sing is the setting.

A darker England

Assassin’s Creed has always been tied up in religion, and one of the things I appreciate about Origins, Odyssey, and now Valhalla is that ancient beliefs are as vital to the stories as the Catholic church is in the Ezio trilogy. As I’ve written before, in a world where people know less than we do about everything — science, navigation, their own bodies — it makes sense that myth feels tangibly real. This is not Miss Marple’s pastoral England. It’s more like Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy, where danger lurks in the fields and someone might be a witch.

Valhalla takes place in 873 CE, at a time when England’s future as a Christian kingdom was by no means certain (and when the country that would go on to brutally colonize much of the world was itself being colonized). Norse, Christian, and Pagan elements mingle. Eivor speaks naturally of Odin, and at one point tangles with a fiendishly difficult boss, a woman decked in fur and skulls, her entire body tattooed: She’s Cordelia, one of the daughters of King Lerion. The king’s desiccated corpse is strung between two nearby trees.

Cordelia summons lightning strikes, and a mystical fog shrouds the shallow pool in which we fight. Earlier, in a spectacular set piece, my fleet of Viking longships sailed through a storm to besiege the castle stronghold of Rued, an enemy Viking. Every so often a flash of lightning would illuminate the castle’s craggy silhouette against the sky. As I drew nearer, flaming arrows fell on my ships in a blinding golden rain. It ruled, my dudes.

Making everyone watch this for the rest of my life.

Elsewhere, a village of thatched cottages is decked out with flowers for the wedding. There are sheep in a pen by the road, and pigs have wandered into the churchyard for lie-down.

If the predominant color scheme of Assassin’s Creed Origins was gold and blue, then this game is gold and green. Green ponds that I want to dip my toes in, green ponds that are fetid and cursed. Stone bridges that sit low on the green rivers, forcing my crew to lower the mast of our longship when we sail under. The sun bursts through the trees or a stained glass window and breaks into distinct rays of gold. If the state of global tourism hasn’t improved by “holiday 2020,” this game is going to upset me.

Eivor surveys a lake with a ruin in the center.

Eivor surveys a lake with a ruin in the center.
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Actually talking about gameplay

The last three years of Assassin’s Creed have been a steady progression (ha! This is an RPG joke!) into RPG-land. Like Odyssey before it, Valhalla lets me unlock abilities that I can map to the face buttons on my controller. Depending on the weapon I’m using, these abilities correspond to the bow or to the rest of my general melee situation (in my demo, I was allowed to choose between axes of various sizes, a flail, and a spear).

There is a Viking equivalent to Odyssey’s Spartan Kick, and another ability that lets me charge enemies and crush them into walls. With my bow, one option lets me fire a burst of arrows that can target multiple enemies — or, in the case of a difficult boss, I can choose to absolutely light up one enemy. These abilities, as well as heavy attacks, are crucial for dealing with enemies who carry shields.

Valhalla’s Ability menu is more sparse than the sprawling web that was in Origins, but it lacks the perfect clarity of Odyssey’s neat rows. But just in case you thought we hadn’t hit RPG bingo with a vast open world, dialogue choice, weapon customization, and an ability tree, fear not. There is a new menu in this game: the Skill tree. I can increase my skills in three areas and get results such as higher attack power, more damage done in an assassination, and so on. But some skills are also activated with a button press, such as my Dual Swap skill that lets me swap weapons in my hands when I’m dual-wielding.

The Skill tree in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which takes the shape of a sprawling constellation

The Skill tree in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which takes the shape of a sprawling constellation

Everything the light touches, Simba.
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft via Polygon

The Skill menu appears as a vast and interminable net of constellations, with stars corresponding to different skills, and more appearing when I zoom in. This menu is bigger than God, and is evil. At one point, I acquired a new skill and another branch of the already huge skill-zodiac unfurled, and I made an agonized sound. Three hours of gameplay was nowhere near enough time to wrangle with this beast, not even remotely.

Now that you’ve read 300 words about menus, a subject on which I apparently have a lot of opinions, let me tell you how the game plays: pretty good!

Eivor doesn’t feel particularly weighty with the basic hand ax and shield combo. The combat at first put me in mind of chopping firewood, and dodging when I’m locked onto a target is hyper fast.

At its best, Valhalla has a rhythm of parrying with the shield to disarm a foe, and then hacking away at them with the ax. Sneaking in a special ability, like the one where Eivor launches in the air and then drives her enemy into the ground, is super-duper satisfying.

I never quite became confident with this rhythm in my time with the game. It’s tempting to put that down to latency in the remote play setup, or maybe my 113 hours in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey have ruined me for the very slight mechanical changes of Valhalla. Either way, I experienced moments of ecstasy, followed by moments of absolute embarrassment when I mistimed a crucial parry, or got caught by an attack instead of dodging.

Eivor and a crewed Viking longship approach a precious village with thatched roofs.

Ready for a wedding!
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Fortunately, I can heal, and it’s innate now. Eivor needs to gather things like mushrooms or berries to replenish her rations, which she can munch during battle to recover health at the push of a button. The Witcher-esque aesthetic, the mushroom gathering, and the skill tree all added up to a moment where I needed to get to the top of a church and genuinely forgot that I could just climb there because I’m playing Assassin’s Creed.

Players who feel that the game’s traditional assassinations are being sidelined may not be swayed by Valhalla. Certainly we’ve been told that what we might consider the franchise’s calling cards are still a feature, but the story missions that I played were all castle-taking brawls, at one point complete with battering ram.

I still believe the franchise’s changes are for the best. As I’ve written before, the series cannot sustain itself simply by offering different variations of large buildings for me to sneak into. What’s being delivered to me now is apparently a mist-ringed bisexual Viking adventure that I will sink one hundred hours into.

I’m gonna be OK with that.

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Pre-orders for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on PS4 and Xbox One are $10 off at Amazon.


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Fortnite for Android has also been kicked off the Google Play Store – The Verge



Following its removal from the Apple App Store, Fortnite has also been kicked off of the Google Play Store for Android. Earlier today, Epic Games snuck in an update for both the iPhone and Android versions of the game that allowed users to pay Epic directly for in-app purchases instead of using the officially sanctioned system for both platforms.

What followed was a wild ride: Apple kicked Fortnite off the App Store, then Epic sued Apple, and finally there was an in-game video parodying Apple’s own 1984 commercial, positioning Apple itself as the monopolist.

Now, Google is in the conversation. As with Apple, Google requires that games use the Google Play system for in-app purchases. Although the Play Store’s rules are somewhat more lax than Apple’s when it comes to in-app purchases, Google does draw the line at games. It’s quite clear-cut: “Developers offering products within a game downloaded on Google Play or providing access to game content must use Google Play In-app Billing as the method of payment.” Google’s system takes a 30 percent cut, just as Apple’s does.

Epic’s update earlier today ran afoul of that rule, and while Google took longer to make a decision to ban Fortnite over it than Apple, both companies reached the same conclusion.

Google’s statement:

The open Android ecosystem lets developers distribute apps through multiple app stores. For game developers who choose to use the Play Store, we have consistent policies that are fair to developers and keep the store safe for users. While Fortnite remains available on Android, we can no longer make it available on Play because it violates our policies. However, we welcome the opportunity to continue our discussions with Epic and bring Fortnite back to Google Play.

A Google spokesperson emphasized to The Verge that Android is an open ecosystem that allows multiple stores and that Google Play’s policies need to apply equally to all developers. It has no problem with those other stores existing nor with Epic distributing its game on them, the spokesperson said.

You can still install Fortnite on Android, however. Epic itself points visitors to its website, where they can either download Fortnite through the Epic Games app or via the Samsung Galaxy Store on Samsung devices. This is different from iPhone and iPad, where it’s now impossible to install the game if you hadn’t already done so.

Epic has a history of tussling with Google over this Play Store rule. In August 2018, Epic pulled Fortnite from the Google Play Store and began distributing it directly. That is only possible because Android allows installs from third-party sources, though it does make that process seem a bit dangerous because of the security warnings that appear when you do.

Eighteen months later, Epic capitulated and put Fortnite back into the Google Play Store, though not without some very angry rhetoric about it. Here’s Epic’s statement from April 2020:

Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage, through technical and business measures such as scary, repetitive security pop-ups for downloaded and updated software, restrictive manufacturer and carrier agreements and dealings, Google public relations characterizing third party software sources as malware, and new efforts such as Google Play Protect to outright block software obtained outside the Google Play store.

An app as popular as Fortnite being installed via other means — specifically other stores — has the potential to lessen the centrality of the Google Play Store on Android — and maybe increase fragmentation. There are already competing stores — Samsung is pushing its own store heavily on its Android devices, for example. But in general, the Google Play Store has been the go-to software source for most people.

Epic is already actively encouraging users to also use the version that comes from Samsung’s store, telling users that they can get the discount that started this whole mess if they do: “You’ll find that V-Bucks and real-money offers are now discounted by up to 20% through the Epic Games app at and the Samsung Galaxy Store.”

If Epic can get users in the habit of using other stores, that could mean users will start to want to use other stores for other app installs. If you’ve used any recent Samsung Galaxy phone, you have seen it offer the option to handle the installs for some major apps. It could mean that Google may be able skirt a monopoly issue with its decision, it would argue that there is real competition for app stores on Android.

For just one other gaming-related example, look to Microsoft. Its upcoming Game Pass Ultimate streaming service (you know it as xCloud) will be available both on Google Play and on Samsung’s Galaxy Store. If you install it via Google Play, you won’t be able to purchase DLC content for Xbox games because of that 30 percent cut. If you happen to install it via Samsung’s store, however, you are able to make in-app purchases. Here’s Microsoft’s statement on the issue:

Our vision is to bring a complete, full-featured experience with in-app purchase capabilities to app stores. However, we are complying with all store policies and do not offer in-app purchases in some stores at this time. To access complete, in-app purchase capabilities, Samsung customers can download the Xbox Game Pass app from the Galaxy Store; SK Telecom customers can also get a complete experience through ONE Store.

(Meanwhile, Microsoft’s game streaming service isn’t allowed on the iPhone at all — and Microsoft isn’t happy about that, either.)

Given Epic’s outsized response to Apple’s ban — the lawsuit and the 1984 ad — it’s a sure bet that the company will have a response to Google as well. We’ll obviously let you know what that is when it happens.

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Canada's COVID Alert app is a case of tech-driven bad policy design – The Conversation Canada



The July 31 release of Canada’s COVID Alert app was greeted with almost universal praise. Privacy experts applauded its strong privacy protections, echoing the official app website’s extensive detailing of how “your privacy is protected,” including a link to an entire other page that explains “how COVID Alert protects your privacy,” which in turn links to Health Canada’s privacy assessment of the app.

The focus on privacy was so overwhelming that you could be forgiven for thinking the app’s entire purpose was to protect people’s privacy rather than to save lives.

Despite this near-universal praise, when you focus on the actual purpose of the app, rather than on its elegant design, red flags start popping up everywhere.

The design and rollout of the app all suggest that considerations of the app’s medical effectiveness have been secondary to its technical design.

[embedded content]
A CBC News report on the announcement of the new Government of Canada COVID Alert app.

The website contains no information about how effective the app might be in reducing COVID-19 transmission. It does say that “COVID Alert is just one part of the public health effort to limit the spread of COVID-19,” but provides no details about what that means.

A poorly designed policy

More troubling, the app was released without anyone having created a framework for evaluating its success. Instead, Health Canada is currently deciding how to evaluate it, meaning it was released without anyone having a clear idea about what they wanted it to do, and now anything it does can be treated as a success.

The Logic, meanwhile, reports that Liberal Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray says that the government doesn’t have “a particular threshold below which it considers the app to be ineffective.”

If COVID Alert had been presented as a regular government mitigation policy, it would have been given a much rougher ride. Consider:

Rather than targeting the groups most vulnerable to COVID transmission, it focuses on those least likely to spread the disease, namely higher-income Canadians who can afford expensive smartphones and data plans. Meanwhile, it’s low-income communities that are most at risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The program will follow best practices in its setup (privacy), but it was designed without setting any criteria for judging its success or failure in helping to flatten the curve, and without embedding it in an appropriate regulatory framework to ensure that apps like COVID Alert aren’t misused by businesses. And the government is spending $10 million to advertise it.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports that “the effectiveness of digital proximity tracking to assist contact tracing remains unknown,” with many variables affecting its potential utility, none of which have been publicly accounted for by the government.

Would you fund an unproven policy that likely wouldn’t reach the people most at risk of getting the disease, and with no way to know if it is working?

Focusing on the tool, not the problem

Instead, COVID Alert’s presentation and reception benefited from what tech critic Evgeny Morozov calls technological solutionism. Technological solutionism describes the all too prevalent tendency to assume that technology can solve all our problems.

When we make this leap, as the government and all too many others did here, we begin to focus on the technology’s design — on how effectively it protects privacy — rather than its effect on the problem it was supposedly designed to address.

Instead of starting from the more open question, “What is the best way to fight the pandemic?” technological solutionism asks the leading question, “How can we use apps to do this?”

Technological solutionism is a terrible way to set policy. It leads policy-makers to ignore other, potentially more effective alternatives. It downplays problems caused by the app’s design. In this case, the fact that people most at risk likely won’t be able to access the tool is treated as a minor bug, rather than as a policy-impairing flaw: if it can’t actually reach the people spreading the disease, it’s practically useless.

Technology is policy

Make no mistake: apps like COVID Alert are government programs, not neutral tools. They deliver services and benefits in ways that can create winners and losers. Their creation involved the allocation of scarce resources and the choice of policy pathways that necessarily involved discarding or delaying other options.

In this case, it shifts yet more responsibility onto individuals to battle the pandemic, rather than onto a dedicated bureaucracy. Rather than, say, closing potential COVID-19 hot spots like bars and providing income support to owners and workers, it relies on an incomplete technological fix to deal with failures to socially distance.

Because they are government programs, apps and technology generally should not be exempt from well-established policy-evaluation frameworks. All the privacy guarantees in the world are meaningless if the app doesn’t actually help to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Read more:
Privacy, perceptions and effectiveness: the challenges of developing coronavirus contact-tracing apps

As digital technologies become increasingly pervasive and private-sector tech firms attempt to insinuate themselves ever deeper into government policy-making (as Apple and Google, the progenitors of this app, are trying to do here), it’s essential that governments avoid technological solutionism.

Otherwise, they will end up outsourcing basic policy-making responsibilities to private tech companies, just as was narrowly avoided when Sidewalk Labs abandoned Waterfront Toronto’s Quayside project in May.

And all of us need to stop thinking about social problems in terms of how tech can help address them. Because when all you have is an app, everything looks like data.

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Misconceptions persist about effectiveness and privacy of Canada's COVID Alert app –



After closing his Barrie, Ont., café for the day recently, René Segura checked his smartphone and saw a reassuring message.

“No exposure detected,” the screen read.

Like 1.9 million other Canadians, Segura downloaded the COVID Alert app on the understanding it would notify him if he spent time in close contact with a known coronavirus carrier.

Launched by the federal government on July 31 — and so far only operational in Ontario — the app is designed to warn users if they’ve spent at least 15 minutes in the past two weeks within two metres of another user who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Having survived a near-death encounter with COVID-19, Segura has extra incentive to use the app.

“I still have my guard up,” Segura said. “I don’t want to go through the same episode again.”

The app, which works on later-model Apple and Android devices, has received positive reviews from privacy advocates, but myths persist about the data it collects — and doesn’t collect. 

Experts in both technology and public health stress that the more people who use it, the better it will be. However, they say it doesn’t need to be adopted by a majority of the population for it to have a positive impact.

Segura installed COVID Alert as a means of extra protection, knowing he would constantly be in close contact with customers at the café he co-owns with his wife. In March, at age 41, he was placed in intensive care with a severe case of COVID-19. He’s fully recovered now but had lingering symptoms for weeks.

René Segura of Barrie, Ont., with his wife, Tracy, was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was admitted to intensive care. He installed COVID Alert as a means of extra protection, knowing he would constantly be in close contact with customers at the café he co-owns with his wife. (Submitted by Tracy and René Segura)

With businesses like his recently reopening and students soon going back to school, Segura said the app is “a great tool.” He just hopes it will function as advertised.

Using the app does not lessen requirements for public health measures like physical distancing, handwashing and wearing a mask. It’s also not meant to replace manual contact tracing — where teams reach out to anyone who’s been put at risk of exposure.

So far, there are few ways to measure whether it has been effective, but that appears to be the price for the software’s built-in privacy measures.

WATCH | COVID-19 exposure notification app rolling out in Ontario:

A new COVID-19 exposure notification app is rolling out in Ontario to warn people if they have been near someone who has tested positive for the virus. The plan is to make the app national, but dates have not been set for other provinces to join. 1:58

Does it work?

At this point, it’s virtually unknowable whether the app has prevented anyone from contracting COVID-19. 

In a nutshell, “you’re trying to measure something that didn’t happen,” said Lucie Abeler-Dörner, a scientific manager at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Medicine in Britain. She said it’s a recurring challenge when reviewing preventative public health interventions.

When a user of the app is diagnosed in Ontario, they’re given a one-time code to input, which then alerts others with whom the patient has been in close contact recently. The feature is built on a framework jointly developed by Apple and Google.

The COVID Alert app is so far only functional in Ontario, but the federal government expects it will roll out in other provinces soon. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

To ensure better privacy, the data is stored on individual devices, not on a central server. The drawback is there’s no way of knowing how many users have received an exposure notification.

What’s more, a user isn’t told when, where or with whom any potential exposure occurred, so it’s impossible to determine whether it’s a real threat or the result of a glitch. The alert would direct the user to seek advice from provincial public health officials.

The app uses Bluetooth to determine the proximity of other smartphones, but the technology’s level of precision is unclear.

Andrew Urbaczewski, an associate professor in business information and analytics at the University of Denver, who examined the effectiveness of similar apps in various countries, said testing such technology in a lab doesn’t guarantee results in the real world.

“We’ve got no reason to believe that it doesn’t work,” he said in an interview, “but we certainly don’t have five years or five months or even five weeks of history as to whether or not this works in the wild as intended.”

Urbaczewski pointed to three indicators of success: the app’s download rate among the population, its capacity to accurately provide exposure notifications and its users’ willingness to follow public health advice in the event of contact with the virus.

An Ontario government spokesperson confirmed to CBC News on Wednesday that COVID Alert has been downloaded almost 1.9 million times “with it being expected that the overwhelming majority of these downloads have come from Ontario.”

Although the app is available across Canada, it has so far only been integrated into Ontario’s health-care system, rendering it virtually useless in the rest of the country for now.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has suggested the Atlantic provinces will join next.

“We hope to see the number of downloads continue to increase across Canada as other provinces and territories connect their health-care authorities to the system,” said Alain Belle-Isle, a spokesperson for the federal Treasury Board, the department that is tracking the download rate.

Once anecdotes emerge of exposure notifications leading users to get tested, that’s “what’s going to be compelling for people to download it more,” said Emily Seto, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation.

“I’ve downloaded it,” she said. “Everybody should — if they can — download it,” because of the potential public health benefits.

How many users are needed?

It’s often been reported that a majority of people in a given country would need to install a coronavirus app for it to be effective. Experts now say that’s not entirely true. Much smaller uptake can help, too.

In April, a team of Oxford University scientists, including Abeler-Dörner, published research suggesting if 60 per cent of the British population installed a contact-tracing app, it would be effective in stopping the epidemic. The number has since been cited around the world to illustrate that high uptake is needed for the app to work.

“It’s the figure from early simulations, and it’s the figure you need to control the epidemic in the absence of all other measures,” Abeler-Dörner said in an interview this week. 

“Our latest simulations show that actually you start seeing an impact of the app from about 15 per cent uptake.”

But Abeler-Dörner, who is part of a team of scientists advising the British government and the country’s National Health Service, said she suspects even smaller uptake provides benefits. 

She pointed to anecdotal evidence from Germany that young, urban populations living in denser neighbourhoods and prone to take part in group activities — more likely to spread the virus — are also more likely to install a coronavirus app.

In Canada, 1.9 million downloads represents five per cent of the country’s population of 38 million. It’s unclear how many of the downloads have come from provinces where the app is not yet active.

[embedded content]

Once downloaded, the app also requires a short installation process before it can monitor for COVID-19 exposure. Data from Switzerland indicates not everyone who downloads a coronavirus app actually uses it. The country’s app has seen more than two million downloads, but as of Monday, it had fewer than 1.25 million active users.

When COVID Alert launched, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said officials would need “an ongoing way of evaluating its effectiveness.” She declined to provide an uptake target but said the more people who use it, “the more useful it would be.”

In July, Australia topped a list compiled by app analytics firm Sensor Tower ranking national coronavirus apps by download rate (21.6 per cent). Ireland is reported to have reached 1.3 million downloads — representing more than 26 per cent of the population — for its COVID Tracker app within eight days of its release.

The Canadian app has only been in use for two weeks. “I think you’re on the right track,” said Abeler-Dörner.

The COVID Alert app doesn’t provide the government — or anyone else — with a user’s name, whereabouts or health information to ensure privacy. It also doesn’t use a smartphone’s GPS function. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Is it actually secure?

The federal government, digital privacy advocates and software experts have provided assurances that COVID Alert is safe. 

“Canadians can opt to use this technology knowing it includes very significant privacy protections,” federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said when the app was released. “I will use it.”

The app only exchanges random codes, not identifying data, with nearby devices. It checks daily for codes belonging to a user who’s said they’ve tested positive.

The app doesn’t provide the government — or anyone else — with a user’s name, whereabouts or health information. It also doesn’t use a smartphone’s GPS function, which could have allowed the app to geolocate a user.

But some Canadians appear to still have deep-seated doubts.

Leger survey results released this week found that 52 per cent don’t believe the government when it says the app does not collect personal information and does not geolocate users. Another 39 per cent did not believe the app “will work.”

The results come from a web survey of 1,513 Canadians carried out Aug. 7-9. The comparable margin of error for a study this size would be plus or minus 2.52 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

A promotional campaign has followed the release of the app, with ads appearing on websites, social media platforms and elsewhere. The U of T’s Emily Seto said targeted campaigns might help clear up misconceptions.

As employees return to workplaces, she said, managers “may want to promote it — maybe not make it mandatory — but to have a campaign to [help] understand the benefits, as well as the privacy measures.”

Could it be better?

The concession for enhanced privacy and security measures appears to be a limited set of public health functions.

“That’s always the tradeoff,” said Urbaczewski. He compared it with Apple’s Siri vocal assistant, which he said sends less data to a central server compared with Amazon’s Alexa, but it can be less responsive as a result.

Coronavirus apps with fewer privacy protections in use elsewhere can provide public health officials with more data to get a better handle on outbreaks. Ireland’s COVID Tracker also uses the Apple-Google framework, but it counts the number of positive test results recorded in the app and how many users get exposure notifications.

Ireland’s COVID Tracker provides public health authorities with data on exposure notifications sent by the app. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Experts say publishing such data can help build trust among the population that the app is working. As it stands in Canada, officials have provided little tangible evidence of its efficacy. 

It’s unknown how many users have uploaded a COVID-19 diagnosis through the app since its launch. A federal government representative directed such inquiries to Ontario’s Ministry of Health, which instructed a reporter to ask Ontario’s Treasury Board Secretariat, which in turn declined to provide an exact figure.

Swiss officials regularly post online the number of active users and downloads. In Germany, the federal disease control agency reported Tuesday that 1,320 people had so far been issued codes for uploading their positive tests to the app. 

In Canada, the government is considering how to track — and potentially make available — data related to the app once other provinces and territories adopt it. 

“Anything that the government can do to continue to promote these types of things and talk about the successes they’ve had will just encourage individuals to participate in the overall effort,” Urbaczewski said.

So far, the only measure made available in Canada is the download rate: 1.9 million in about 12 days.

Abeler-Dörner said she recommends that public health authorities collect additional app data manually, such as by asking people who are reached through traditional contact tracing if they were previously alerted of an exposure through the app. That way, officials could get a sense of whether the app is notifying users quickly, as it’s meant to.

The other persistent criticism of the initiative surrounds the app’s accessibility. COVID Alert can only run on an Apple or Android device released in the past five years, making it unavailable to vulnerable populations without access to recent technology.

Research has consistently shown that lower-income and marginalized communities are at a higher risk of contracting the virus — meaning those who could most benefit from an exposure notification app can’t access it. 

Singapore addressed the issue by providing contact-tracing tokens — small devices carried in someone’s pocket or purse — that play a role similar to an app.

In Canada, the flaw arises from the Apple-Google framework, which only works on later-model phones. But according to Sebastian Skamski, a spokesperson for Ontario Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, that covers “the vast majority of smartphones owned by Ontarians.”

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