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The Alberta government will adopt the federal COVID-19 exposure app, after earlier insisting Ottawa should help the province fix its own smartphone contact-tracing system that had been beset by technical limitations and user complaints.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in Canada to release a smartphone app designed to track potential exposure to the coronavirus. The province’s ABTraceTogether app uses Bluetooth signals to log encounters and identify users who may have come into contact with an infected person.

ABTraceTogether, released in May and based on a system already in use in Singapore, was hampered by technical issues on iPhones that made it less effective and opened up potential security risks.

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Ottawa recently released its COVID Alert app in Ontario with plans to roll it out in other provinces. The app uses a system designed by Google and Apple that avoids the problems encountered in Alberta.

Premier Jason Kenney earlier complained that Ottawa had blocked the tech companies from assisting the province in fixing its app. The Globe and Mail reported that the province was pressing the federal government to help ensure that the two apps could work together.

Alberta not committing to federal contact tracing app, seeks help with its own

Steve Buick, press secretary for Alberta’s Health Minister, confirmed that the province now plans to adopt the federal government’s COVID Alert system.

“We recognize and accept that Canada is moving to a national tracing app,” Mr. Buick wrote in an e-mail.

Alberta’s app has about 234,000 active users, and Mr. Buick said the province’s priority now is to ensure that they are able to “seamlessly” switch over to COVID Alert.

COVID Alert launched in Ontario on July 31 after weeks of delays. The federal government expects to roll it out in Atlantic Canada next, followed by other provinces in the coming weeks.

It’s not clear when it will launch in Alberta. Mr. Buick said the timing is up to the federal government and the province is still awaiting more information about how to manage the changeover.

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A security measure in the iPhone operating system meant that Alberta’s app could not access Bluetooth signals in the background, meaning that users needed to have the app running with their screens turned on for it to work.

Alberta’s Privacy Commissioner warned last month that asking iPhone users to keep their devices turned on and unlocked increased the risk of data theft. The issue did not affect phones running Google’s Android operating system.

Like ABTraceTogether, the federal government’s COVID Alert app also uses Bluetooth signals to track encounters with other users, but there are important differences.

The Alberta app passes along data, including phone numbers, to provincial contact tracers, who then use that information to contact people who may have been exposed to the virus.

COVID Alert 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.

Encounters with other phones are logged if they are within two metres of each other for more than 15 minutes.

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Ottawa had argued in favour of a single national app and experts have said that this approach would be the most effective rather than having competing apps in different parts of the country.

The system is already in use in some U.S. states and in countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan.

Most of those apps use a similar approach to Canada’s COVID Alert, focusing on notifying users but otherwise letting them remain anonymous. Ireland’s COVID-19 app, which also uses the Apple-Google system, gives users who receive exposure notifications the option of providing their phone number to health officials to receive a follow-up call.

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.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada.

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