The ABTraceTogether app that was launched on May 1, 2020, is increasing in popularity. As of May 28, 2020, it has 193,974 registered users.
So what is the ABTraceTogether app?
The ABTraceTogether app is a made in Alberta mobile contact tracing app that helps an individual know if he or she has been exposed to COVID-19 – or if he or she has exposed others – while protecting his or her privacy. ABTraceTogether is also a tool to help support existing efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 and complements traditional manual contact tracing completed by public health officials. It means Albertans will be contacted more quickly if they are at risk.
In addition, secure contact tracing is a cornerstone of Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy. The Alberta government recommends Albertans download the ABTraceTogether mobile contact tracing app and use it when in public.
How does the ABTraceTogether app work?
Automated contact tracing involves using smartphones and Bluetooth technology to detect when two people are close to each other for long enough that there is a significant risk of contagion so that one can be warned if the other is later diagnosed with having the disease.
So far, tracing in Canada has been done manually, with public health staff or volunteers getting in touch with each patient’s recent contacts one by one. An app can speed up that process, and doesn’t require users to remember where they’ve been or, just as importantly, with whom.
Contact Tracers are individuals who work for Alberta Health Services (AHS). When an infected person is contacted by a Contact Tracer, the infected person will be asked if they use the ABTraceTogether app. If the infected person has the app, they will be asked to voluntarily upload the encrypted data from the app to Alberta Health Services. This information will be critical to help increase the speed and effectiveness of Alberta’s COVID-19 response. Once AHS receives the encrypted data, AHS Contact Tracers will be able to use that information to reach the other app users who have had close contact with the infected person.
The app applies the definition of close contact used by Alberta Health Services (approximately 2 meters for a total of 15 minutes within a 24-hour period) for contact tracers to determine whether a user has had probable exposure to COVID-19.
How does the ABTraceTogether app deal with privacy issues?
The use of the app by individual Albertans is voluntary and users must opt-in. The app does not track the user’s physical location and does not use GPS. The only personal data the app collects during set up is the individual’s mobile number. Mobile numbers or any other personal information are not revealed to other apps. Only temporary IDs are exchanged between phones, and these IDs change regularly.
As per the recommendation of the Alberta Privacy Commissioner, protecting Albertans privacy is paramount. The individuals’ personal information will not be shared with AHS contact tracers without his or her permission. This data is stored only on the individual’s phone. Should Alberta Health Services need the data for contact tracing, they will ask the individual directly to share it with them and enable an upload of his or her contact tracing logs.
AHS will contact an infected person to determine others who may have been exposed to the infected person over the previous 21 days. All contact data is only on the user’s phone and is deleted after 21 days.
ABTraceTogether app needs more traction
The effectiveness of the ABTraceTogether app only works if every Albertan has the app running on their phone and Bluetooth enabled. At this time, only about three percent of the population of Alberta (around 4.4 million) is using it. For a contact tracing app to be effective, studies suggest at least 60 percent of a population needs to use it. For example, a group of British researchers suggested a similar app would only be effective if it were adopted by 56 percent of the UK’s population.
Alberta Health Services has indicated that they would like more Albertans using it but are very encouraged that the downloading trend of the app is growing. Downloads for the app can be found on the Province of Alberta’s website.
Governments in Canada have been reluctant to adopt the technology, citing privacy concerns. Most of the apps currently on offer require access to a smartphone’s GPS location, allowing the government to track a person’s movements. Some other provinces and territories have acknowledged they’re considering how to implement digital contact tracing. However, there is a fear that a patchwork of plans leaves open the possibility that contact tracing apps will be incompatible from one jurisdiction to another, as inter-provincial travel slowly resumes. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has stated in a press briefing that at a conference call with other premiers, territorial leaders and the federal government will call for a national plan for contact tracing apps.
Only time will tell!
Can ABTraceTogether app be used in the workplace?
Some companies are requiring their employees to download the ABTraceTogether app or a similar smartphone app.
For example, Vancouver’s Daniel Leung is the founder and CEO of LivNao, a tech firm that’s developed a contact tracing app that tracks an employee’s location while at work.
Using a phone’s GPS and Bluetooth signals, it can determine whether employees have had contact with a co-worker who tested positive for COVID-19. The app can also tell if workers are violating social distancing rules by gathering in close proximity or in large numbers.
In addition, users should not be penalized because they did not have a smartphone, do not have their phone turned on or with them, did not download an app, or enable Bluetooth or anything similar unless any of these requirements can be demonstrably justified (e.g., through familiar human rights tests) and these privacy safeguards are in effect.
I am sure as the use of this type of app becomes more and more popular, we will have more published privacy and government guidelines. In the meantime, before deciding to make this a workplace control measure to prevent COVID-19 in the workplace in your safety plan, consult your employment lawyer.