Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is accusing the federal government of blocking Apple and Google from helping the province fix a significant flaw in its COVID-19 contact-tracing app that limits the effectiveness for iPhone users and exposes them to potential security risks.
The province launched its ABTraceTogether more than two months ago, becoming the first province to allow smartphone users to track potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. The app uses Bluetooth signals to detect other devices, anonymously log encounters and then warn users if they have been near someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.
But technical limitations in the iPhone version of the app mean that users must leave the app running with their phones’ screens turned on for it to work. The province’s Privacy Commissioner warned last week that asking users to keep their phones turned on and unlocked increases the risk of data theft. The issue does not affect phones running Google’s Android operating system.
Mr. Kenney said any fix would require help from Apple and Google, which have developed a contact-tracing standard that would address the problems with the Alberta app, but he said Ottawa is preventing that from happening.
“Unfortunately, the government of Canada has told Google and Apple not to work with the government of Alberta or other provincial governments,” he said on Monday.
“At the end of the day, by standing in the way between us and the large tech companies, they are effectively reducing the functionality of an app which can help us in the midst of a public-health crisis.”
Mr. Kenney said the federal government has said it is focusing on a single national app, but he added that no such app currently exists.
Smartphone apps have emerged as a key tool to track and contain COVID-19 outbreaks as jurisdictions around the world shift out of lockdowns and gradually reopen large sectors of their economies.
The federal government announced plans last month for a contact-tracing app called COVID Alert, which would use the Google-Apple system. At the time, the government said the app would launch in Ontario on July 2 and would be available across the country later this summer. The Ontario launch was delayed and the federal government has not offered a new timeline.
Cole Davidson, press secretary for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, said in a statement that the government is working with Google and Apple to create a single national app to ensure it will be “the most helpful” for Canadians. Mr. Davidson did not address Mr. Kenney’s assertion that the federal government had blocked the tech companies from also working with the province to fix its app.
Apple spokeswoman Tara Hendela referred to the company’s website and did not answer questions about the Alberta app or the role of the federal government. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
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 last month 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 of the app only picked up 4 per cent of contacts.
Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the federal government enlisted Alberta’s help to develop the national app, with the province leading a national contact tracing working group. He said Alberta is happy to help, but he added there’s no reason to block progress in the province at the same time.
With a report from The Associated Press
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