New Brunswick

Province considers launch of COVID-19 contact-tracing app, says Higgs

The New Brunswick government is looking into launching a contact-tracing app to continue to control the spread of COVID-19, says Premier Blaine Higgs.

Phone log of app users in recent proximity to infected person would allow quicker response, prevent spread

The provincial government is mulling the use of an app that assists with contact tracing to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Jenny Kane/The Associated Press)

The New Brunswick government is looking into launching a contact-tracing app to continue to control the spread of COVID-19, says Premier Blaine Higgs.

"We're moving down that trail very quickly," he told CBC News on Tuesday.

The smartphone app being developed would detect and log when one user is in proximity to another.

If an app user is diagnosed with COVID-19, Public Health would be able to check the infected person's app log to identify other app users who were in recent close contact with that person.

"We could know who was in touch with whom and then contact them and then do further testing. So you basically can do the contact tracing very, very quickly," said Higgs.

Premier Blaine Higgs said the protection of people's privacy is 'always an overriding principle' with any technological development. (Government of New Brunswick/Submitted)

Faster contact tracing could help reduce transmissions as the province begins to loosen COVID-19 restrictions and until a vaccine becomes available, he said, likely in 12 to 18 months.

The app would be voluntary and could be switched off, Higgs said.

"It's just one more way to track a virus like this," he said.

"It's exciting … when you think of the potential."

Privacy implications depend on details

Provincial ombud Charles Murray said such tools are "obviously … very significant in a public health context, but the privacy implications may be very substantial."

"In much of this, the devil is in the details and the test of proportionality."

Murray said he expects to learn more about the government's plans during a briefing Thursday afternoon and could offer further comment at that time.

Provincial ombud Charles Murray said he will be better able to speak to the specifics of what the government is contemplating after he is briefed Thursday afternoon. (CBC)

The federal privacy commissioner's office has spoken with the federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Health Canada about contact tracing apps. Earlier this month, the office released a guide for government institutions to follow while responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

"The current health crisis calls for a flexible and contextual application of privacy laws. Privacy is not an impediment to saving lives," Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said in a statement.

"During a crisis, laws can be applied flexibly and contextually, but they must still apply. Public health objectives and privacy protection can be achieved at the same time"

Higgs said the protection of privacy is "always an overriding principle" for the government with any new technology.

"Obviously all of the privacy rules have to be followed. We have to make sure people are comfortable," he told reporters during Wednesday's daily COVID-19 update in Fredericton.

Having a centralized database of people's movements and interactions raises obvious red flags for potential abuse.

But the government is "currently exploring a decentralized database" for the contact-tracing app, said Nicolle Carlin, director of communications for the premier's office.

A decentralized system would store a person's data on their own phone.

Could be ready in weeks

Higgs expects the app to be ready "soon."

"We hope in the next month. Let's say two, three, four weeks," he said Tuesday.

If the app will be implemented and when is "yet to be determined," he said Wednesday.

"But it's looking at technology and is there a way to track a virus, is there a way that's acceptable to the public, keeping in mind it's certainly always voluntary, and it's just one more measure that is important for us to consider.

"And it's kind of exciting our Department of Health is leading this initiative, just looking for new and innovative ways to best safeguard our population."

Singapore launched app last month

Apple and Google are working on a joint-app that would track contact between Android and iPhone users.

The Australian government launched a voluntary contact-tracing app on April 26, which has been criticized by civil liberties groups as an invasion of privacy.

It's based on Singapore's TraceTogether software, which uses Bluetooth signals to measure and log the proximity and duration of an encounter between two users.

The Australian government has said its app will not track users' locations and it has promised legislative protection to ensure only a state public health official can access an app's stored contact data.

B.C.-native Sean Davidson, who is lives in Signapore, is one of the million people in the Southeast Asian nation who voluntarily uses the contact-tracing app called TraceTogether. (Sean Davidson)

Singapore's app, launched on March 20, is showing promise, Reuters reports.

The Singapore government says it stores only the app user's phone number and a random identity code on a secure server.

No geolocation data is collected, according to the government's website. All proximity data is stored on the user's phone and will be automatically destroyed after 21 days, it states.

Britain's National Health Service is piloting a contact-tracing app targeting 80 per cent of smartphone users.

80% opt-in best

Some research suggests up to 80 per cent of New Brunswick cellphone users would have to opt-in for the app "to be fully effective on its own," said Carlin.

"However [New Brunswick] is using traditional contact tracing methods in addition to this technology," she said.

Traditional contact tracing involves a Public Health nurse interviewing each person who tests positive for COVID-19, and trying to figure out who they've been in contact with 48 hours before the onset of symptoms.

Public Health nurses contact those individuals to tell them they may have been exposed and to offer advice on how to self-isolate for 14 days and to watch for symptoms

There is no estimated cost for the app available yet, Carlin said.

The province marked its 11th straight day with no new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday.

There are only four known active cases left in the province, one of whom is in hospital, chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced.

Of the 118 confirmed cases of the virus to date, 114 people have recovered — a 97 per cent recovery rate, she said.

Corrections

  • Based on information provided by Premier Blaine Higgs, an earlier version of this story indicated the province was developing the app in conjunction with the University of New Brunswick. In fact, UNB was not involved.
    Jun 22, 2020 7:31 PM AT

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