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Alberta rolls out ABTraceTogether, an app-based coronavirus contact tracing program

Alberta’s new coronavirus contact tracing app is out, but it’s going to need widespread uptake to be effective.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health first referenced the contact tracing app in the province’s April 23 COVID-19 briefing.

At that point it was in the final testing phase.

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“The benefit of this app is in speeding up information gathering to support the contact tracing work that our public health workers are already doing,” Dr. Hinshaw said at the time.

“This is simply taking our decades old public health approach into the 21st Century and providing more efficient means for Albertans to work with public health in tracing contacts of cases.”

ABTraceTogether is based off source code from a similar app used in Singapore. Using that code, the province, with the help of partners at Deloitte, built the app for use in Alberta. The cost of the app was $625,000.

Use of the app is completely voluntary; no one is required to download ABTraceTogether.

In places like Singapore, even after several weeks, there has only been about 20 per cent uptake by the smartphone-using public. The province said for the program to be most effective, it needs widespread use among the population.

How ABTraceTogether works

When a user signs up, all it asks for is the mobile number of the user. Once downloaded (iOS and Android) the user must enable certain app permissions, including the use of Bluetooth.

A privacy policy will also pop up before use.

You will then be asked to verify a code sent to your phone.

Put simply, the app logs when you have been near another user with ABTraceTogether. When there is a connection, that is logged locally in the phone. It has a unique ID and the phone number – no location. Alberta Health Services will not know the location of the contact.

Should a person start to have symptoms of COVID-19 and they are using the app, once they are confirmed positive, the public health contact tracer will contact them. From here, they will ask the user to upload their ABTraceTogether data to Alberta Health and then Alberta Health can immediately contact those people who may have been in contact with you.

“This is a vital step in preventing further spread of the virus,” said Dr. Hinshaw.

Likewise, you would be contacted if you had come into contact with others who were infected with COVID-19.

“It is also time-consuming and resource-intensive relying on each individual’s ability to recollect who they may have come in contact with and then follow up with each of those individuals in order to be successful.”

Privacy concerns

The province is aware of potential privacy concerns. At this point, a privacy impact assessment has been filed with Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

In a statement posted April 23, Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton said they have been in contact with the province and have been given a high level overview.

“As this app is rolled out, it will be important for the Government of Alberta to provide Albertans with a clear, easy to understand description of privacy practices,” said Clayton.

“Knowing in plain language what types of personal information may be collected, how that information will be used and in what circumstances it will be disclosed will assist people in choosing to opt-in to using the app.”

In an updated statement May 1, Clayton said she supports the province’s efforts to enhance contact tracing.

“In my view, Alberta Health has chosen a less intrusive approach in deploying this app, while continuing to rely on the human expertise required for effective contact tracing. A technological approach alone is not a panacea,” read a statement from Clayton’s office.

How Alberta is addressing privacy concerns

According to the province, the app use is voluntary and consent based. People have to opt-in or out to use the program.

They said there is no identifiable information exchanged between users and there’s no collection of GPS or location information.

The information is only used by Alberta Health Services when a user tests positive and voluntarily uploads their contact data.

The province also said that all data remains on a user’s phone. AHS won’t know where the contact was, just that it happened. It logs the approximate distance and duration of the contact. It also doesn’t broadcast real-time alerts of those people around you.

AHS can only track previous contacts. It cannot track any encounters in real time or after a positive test is acknowledged.