LONDON, ONT -- Computer scientists at Western University in London, Ont. have developed a digital tool that allows them to critically assess privacy concerns and the effectiveness of various contact tracing applications.

The tool was designed in order to help national and provincial policymakers make decisions on which apps are best for protecting Canadians against COVID-19, but it can also be used globally.

With several apps available on the market it can be difficult to determine which ones are most effective while also protecting privacy.

“Our analytical tool automates the assessment of a number of privacy preservation features and assigns a score to how well the app can secure the personal data of its users,” said computer science professor Anwar Haque with Western.

Contact tracing has emerged as the primary way in which governments and public health officials can limit the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19, and has become a vital tool in the ongoing pandemic around the globe.

Traditionally tracing has been a manual process in which infected individuals are interviewed by people to identify close contacts.

Digital applications are created to speed up that process to compete with the rapid spread of COVID-19, but since their inception, there have been many concerns about privacy as well as effectiveness.

The new Western evaluation tool, created by Haque and Western research associate Rashed Nekvi, gives each app a privacy score by comparing its features against standard principles from federal privacy laws and the internationally agreed upon privacy guidelines from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“People are far less likely to voluntarily download a CT app on their phone due to fears of surveillance. However, the wide adoption of a CT app by the world’s population is necessary to have a meaningful impact in the fight against COVID-19,” said Haque.

The federal government released the COVID ALERT app earlier this year encouraging Canadians to download the app to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

However, there have only been 4.7 million downloads of the app to date, just 12 per cent of the population.

“This new tool could play a crucial role not only in supporting the national policymakers as they select the right CT apps to employ but also in increasing the population’s confidence in those apps as it relates to privacy and effectiveness,” said Tamer Mohamed, business development manager at WORLDiscoveries in a statement.