Alberta's COVID-19 tracking app is flawed but worth using, experts say

Alberta’s COVID-19 tracing application, ABTraceTogether, has flaws that make it awkward to use on Apple devices, but it is still a valuable tool to fight the pandemic, experts say.

ABTraceTogether requires Apple users keep devices unlocked with app active in foreground

ABTraceTogether is a mobile app that uses Bluetooth technology to trace and prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Alberta's COVID-19 tracing application, ABTraceTogether, has flaws that make it awkward to use on Apple devices, but it is still a valuable tool to fight the pandemic, some experts say.

ABTraceTogether uses Bluetooth technology to track users and will send a notification if a user may have come into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Over 103,000 people have downloaded the app since its launch Friday, said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

"I hope more Albertans will choose to download the app to increase our contact tracing ability," Hinshaw said Monday.

"We need to gather as much accurate information about how the virus is spreading as we can."

But the app is limited by Apple's built-in privacy setting, which restricts the way Bluetooth can be used by apps.

To work on an iPhone or iPad, ABTraceTogether must be actively running in the foreground, meaning that the device must stay open.

"Your phone has to be unlocked and you have to be actively using it while you're out walking around in grocery stores or taking the bus or whatnot," said Matt Schneider, who earned his PhD with a specialization in digital humanities from the University of Toronto. 

Running the app in the foreground uses more battery power and increases the risk that someone's information could be altered or stolen from their device, Schneider said.

"Suddenly, it allows anyone who can get access to your phone to get into your phone," he said. 

App respects privacy

ABTraceTogether follows best practices for an app of its type, said Chris Nowell, director of cybersecurity firm Three Shield Information Security. 

"The threat is very, very minimal," Nowell said. "They're collecting a minimum of information, which is the phone number."

A person infected with COVID-19 has to voluntarily upload their information to the app, he said. 

"They're also only retaining the information for 21 days, which reduces the risk."

The province could have designed an app that ran in the background on Apple devices but that version would have been less reliable, said Nowell.

"I think it was worth rolling out," he said. 

"The value for iPhone users is a bit lower but I think it's a good tradeoff for the Alberta government, which is to make sure that it's as private and reliable as possible."

New interface coming 

Apple and Google are working on a way to authorize the use of Bluetooth tracking for COVID-19 without requiring the app to remain open, Nowell said.

He's encouraging the province to update its app when the interface is available.

"I think adoption would be a lot higher with a new version," he said.

Schneider hopes Apple users won't be turned away from using ABTraceTogether.

"I'm concerned that people will find it frustrating and be disinclined to use the updated version because they've had that bad experience.

"Even though it has these flaws, it's going to be a really important part of the strategy for Alberta to overcome COVID-19."