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Alberta launches ABTraceTogether app to improve contact tracing, fight COVID-19 spread

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WATCH ABOVE: Albertans can now download an app that monitors if the user has come in contact with a COVID-19 patient. The province says ABTraceTogether will help fight the pandemic but as Fletcher Kent explains, there are some privacy concerns. – May 1, 2020

UPDATE: Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said on Monday, May 4 that more than 86,000 Albertans downloaded the app in its first weekend.

The province and Alberta Health Services launched a voluntarily smartphone application Friday that will use Bluetooth to more accurately and efficiently identify contacts of a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Officials say this is the first contact-tracing app to launch in North America.

READ MORE: Coronavirus contact-tracing apps a good idea — if ‘done correctly’: Canadian cybersecurity expert

The app is called ABTraceTogether and is free to download.

The government and AHS worked with Deloitte to develop it, using similar technology used in Singapore as a model. However, the Alberta app collects less information than any other similar product being used by other jurisdictions (like Singapore, South Korea and Australia) to fight COVID-19.

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AHS says the more people use it, the more lives it has the potential of saving.

Once installed, the app uses a phone’s Bluetooth to log anytime it comes within two metres of another person with the app for a cumulative 15 minutes.

The phones detect each other and exchange anonymous encrypted data, the province said. Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, described it as an “encrypted digital handshake.” No information is uploaded at that time; it is just stored in the app.

Apple IOS users need to have the app running in the foreground when they leave home, an AHS spokesperson explained, meaning their screen is unlocked and the app is visible on the screen. The app has a power-saving feature that help conserve battery life.

For Android users, the app can be either in the foreground or the background, AHS said.

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Alberta launches ABTraceTogether, an app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing in the province. May 1, 2020.
Alberta launches ABTraceTogether, an app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing in the province. May 1, 2020. Courtesy: Alberta government

Using the manual contact tracing process, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, they receive a phone call from an AHS contact tracer. Now, that person will ask if the patient has the ABTraceTogether app, and if so, if they consent to sharing its encounter history data.

If the person agrees, that information provides the health official with a phone number and duration of exposure for anyone that positive COVID-19 case had contact with.

“Even when app users who may have been exposed are contacted, user identities will not be shared,” Hinshaw said. “Users will merely be informed that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Click to play video 'Alberta launches trace-tracking app' Alberta launches trace-tracking app
Alberta launches trace-tracking app – May 1, 2020

“If you are diagnosed with COVID and you consent with the information on your phone being used, the contact tracer will be able to match the unique non-identifiable IDs on your phone with the registered users’ phone numbers via a merging of data.”

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READ MORE: How an Alberta contact-tracing app would work to help in fight against COVID-19

Then, AHS is able to notify them of the exposure, regardless of if the initial COVID-19 patient knows their name, has their number, or even remembers being in that location.

Click to play video 'Alberta to launch contact tracing app to help in fight against COVID-19' Alberta to launch contact tracing app to help in fight against COVID-19
Alberta to launch contact tracing app to help in fight against COVID-19 – Apr 23, 2020

The manual approach relies on a person’s ability to remember all their interactions and, in cases like someone in line at the grocery store, they don’t have the ability to contact that person.

READ MORE: How does COVID-19 contact tracing work? Alberta doctor explains

AHS believes this technology will strengthen and speed up the contact tracing process – but it won’t replace the traditional contact tracing method.

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“The use of technology for this purpose may seem intrusive but downloading the app is completely voluntarily,” Hinshaw added.

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“The app does not use your phone’s GPS and does not track the user’s location or contacts. The only information exchanged between users’ phones is a random ID that is non-identifying. Nothing that is identifiable is exchanged.

“After 21 days, each day’s worth of data is deleted one day at a time.”

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps?' Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps?
Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps? – Apr 28, 2020

Protecting Albertans’ privacy was a big consideration during the app’s development, the province said.

The team worked with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner from the very early stages and has been in constant contact, the government said.

READ MORE: Alberta privacy commissioner investigating Babylon health app

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It has submitted a privacy impact assessment to the OIPC and, while the privacy commissioner has not issued a formal decision, the team believes it will receive approval within a few weeks.

The privacy commissioner had some questions and sought more clarification on the app, but the team said it will provide those responses and the questions do not give them cause for concern or pause.

Rolling out this app quickly was critical, the officials said, stressing that it could save lives.

Alberta Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton said she supports Alberta Health’s efforts to enhance contact tracing to respond to the pandemic.

Compared to other technologies being used worldwide to supplement contact tracing, she describes ABTraceTogether as “a less invasive approach,” which still relies on human expertise.

“Ensuring this app is voluntary, collects minimal information, uses decentralized storage of de-identified Bluetooth contact logs, and allows individuals to control their use of the app are positive components.

“People diagnosed with COVID-19 also decide whether to disclose to public health officials the contact log stored on their phone,” Clayton said.

“My office received a privacy impact assessment on the app earlier this week. An initial review has been undertaken and we have sent questions to Alberta Health to clarify certain aspects of the PIA.

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“For example, I am seeking confirmation that the data collected through this app is to be used for contact tracing, and not for any other purpose.”

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Coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19 contact tracing app gains traction in Europe – Apr 18, 2020

Ontario’s former privacy commissioner has concerns.

“Phone numbers are easily linked to personally identifiable individuals,” Ann Cavoukian told Global News.

“The risk, for me, is after the pandemic is over that this information could continue to be used afterwards. We need very clear sunset clauses.”

The Opposition NDP supports the intent of the ABTraceTogether app but says its effectiveness is dependent on many Albertans trusting it’s safe, secure and downloading it.

“Acceptance depends on trust, and for that, the government must be fully transparent about the app’s privacy risks, and the steps the government has taken to limit those risks,” said Heather Sweet, the NDP’s critic for Democracy and Ethics.

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She said the OIPC has 14 questions about the app that have not yet been answered.

Sweet also wants to see manual contact tracing be potentially ramped up if uptake on the app is not high.

“Lastly, we believe the TraceTracker app must be suspended, and the information captured by it terminated, the moment the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Could Alberta use smartphone apps to track patients, enforce quarantine?

The contract with Deloitte for the app is for up to $625,000 but AHS says an effective tracing app has a huge return on investment. It protects the health of Albertans better, reduces spread and fatalities, and allows Alberta to, in many ways, restart the economy.

This app uses Bluetooth – not GPS – so it doesn’t track a person’s movements or location. The government stressed this app is not being used for any kind of surveillance or enforcement.

Click to play video 'Could Alberta use smartphone apps to track patients, enforce quarantine?' Could Alberta use smartphone apps to track patients, enforce quarantine?
Could Alberta use smartphone apps to track patients, enforce quarantine? – Apr 8, 2020

AHS officials say, in the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, contact tracing and physical distancing are the only main methods of preventing spread available.

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While contact tracing targets the people at highest risk of infection in your closest social network, physical distancing targets a wider sphere of that network.

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Gatherings with family, outside, in groups under 15 are acceptable: Hinshaw – May 1, 2020

The app is voluntary and is opt-in/opt-out, the province stressed.

READ MORE: Trudeau open to ‘voluntary’ coronavirus tracking app but says privacy paramount

No identifiable information is exchanged between users and the information is only collected by AHS when a user tests positive for COVID-19 and voluntarily uploads their contact log. That encrypted encounter history log is automatically deleted from the phone after 21 days, the province said.

The app is available free on Google Play and the Apple App store.

Alberta launches ABTraceTogether, an app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing in the province. May 1, 2020.
Alberta launches ABTraceTogether, an app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing in the province. May 1, 2020. Courtesy: Alberta government