The Alberta government continues to press Ottawa to help it fix its contact tracing app, which has been hampered by technical issues, and make it compatible with the federal government’s COVID-19 app.
The province, which says it hasn’t made a decision yet about whether it will support the federal app, says it wants to continue using its own, which has already been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of Albertans.
But experts say it does not make sense to have competing apps – and what Alberta is proposing may not even be technically possible.
The province was the first jurisdiction in Canada to launch a contact tracing smartphone app, based on technology already in use in Singapore.
The ABTraceTogether app, released in May, uses Bluetooth signals to track encounters with other users and later identify people who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Technical limitations in the iPhone version mean users must leave the app running with their screens turned on, which limits its effectiveness and raises privacy concerns.
The federal government has launched its own app, COVID Alert, in Ontario and is expected to roll it out in other provinces soon. The national app, which also uses Bluetooth signals, is based on software developed by Apple and Google that avoids the issues encountered in Alberta.
Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan said the province has yet to decide whether it will adopt COVID Alert and instead wants to find a way to make the apps compatible with one another.
“We support an interoperable national approach to all contact tracing apps in Canada,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve offered to make our app interoperable with [COVID Alert], but need more info on their app to do so.”
Premier Jason Kenney has accused the federal government of preventing Apple and Google from working with the province to fix its app, with Ottawa insisting that the tech giants concentrate their efforts on the national app instead.
While the two apps use similar Bluetooth technology, they operate somewhat differently.
Alberta’s app passes along data, including phone numbers, to provincial health officials, who then use that information to contact people who may have been exposed to the virus.
The federal app, meanwhile, is decentralized and only provides notifications through the app – directly to people who may have been exposed, who can then decide whether to seek testing or contact health officials. The data cannot be used to identify a particular user, and contact tracers do not get involved in the notification process.
The Alberta app has 234,000 active users and was used to identify its first case of COVID-19 in May, Mr. McMillan said. The federal government has said COVID Alert has already been downloaded more than one million times.
Cole Davidson, press secretary for the federal Health Minister, said in an e-mail that the government is working to create a single, nationwide app.
Mr. Davidson did not address Alberta’s request to make the two apps compatible or the province’s complaints of federal interference.
Smartphone apps have emerged as a key tool to track and contain COVID-19 outbreaks as jurisdictions around the world shift out of lockdown and gradually reopen large sectors of their economies.
Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, said it makes sense to have a single app that works everywhere in Canada, particularly as provinces continue to reopen and travel becomes more common.
“Making sure that we have this network rolled out to expedite how quickly we can control COVID when flareups come up is going to be important,” he said in an interview.
“Having a mishmash of different apps is just going to make that much more challenging.”
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor who contributed to a report about COVID-19 apps to Canada’s chief science adviser, agreed that a single, national app would be most effective.
He also said it may be easier to convince people to download Ottawa’s app because it comes with fewer privacy concerns than Alberta’s.
“[The federal app] removes some of the lingering concerns people have around privacy by basically saying, ‘You don’t have to worry about data collection or this stuff being personally identifiable. We’re going to remove that from the equation altogether,’” he said.
He said that may partly explain why adoption of Alberta’s app still appears low after more than three months.
James Petrie, a PhD student at the University of Waterloo who has worked on COVID-19 exposure apps, including one that will soon be released in Arizona, said it may not be possible to make Alberta’s compatible with Ottawa’s.
He said Apple and Google have imposed strict rules for governments that want to use their exposure notification software – including preventing apps from using two different systems at the same time.
He added that, even if that were not the case, it would be difficult to make the two apps work together if Alberta wanted to continue having its app function as a tool for contact tracers.
“There is some inertia with having already published [Alberta’s] app, so I see some of their hesitancy about this,” he said.
“But in the long run, it would be much simpler to just have one app, because if we are supporting multiple apps, the servers have to be made to communicate and there’s some technical things that have to be worked out.”
Alberta’s Privacy Commissioner warned last month that asking iPhone users to keep their devices turned on and unlocked increases the risk of data theft. The issue does not affect phones running Google’s Android operating system.
The system designed by Google and Apple is already in use in some U.S. states and in countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan.
Britain tested its own app and planned to roll it out across the country but put the project on hold because of the same limitations encountered in Alberta. The British app did not use the Google-Apple system and, as a result, the iPhone version only picked up 4 per cent of contacts.
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