New Brunswick

Province's plan for COVID-19 contact-tracing app denied by Ottawa

Premier Blaine Higgs says plans for a New Brunswick COVID-19 contact-tracing app have been thwarted by the federal government.

Premier calls decision 'concerning,' suggests New Brunswick app could have launched sooner

Premier Blaine Higgs said provincial officials had been working diligently to get the contact-tracing app launched quickly. (Government of New Brunswick/Submitted)

Premier Blaine Higgs says plans for a New Brunswick COVID-19 contact-tracing app have been thwarted by the federal government.

"Oh yes, I guess I got clarification that there's one app, and it's a national one," he told reporters Friday following a conference call Thursday night with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the other premiers.

The provincial government has been working to develop a smartphone app that would detect and log when a volunteer user is in proximity to other users and notify others if that person later tests positive for COVID-19.

But it needs Bluetooth technology provided jointly by Apple and Google to launch.

In an attempt to avoid a patchwork of apps and promote use, Apple and Google are restricting use of their technology to one app per country, leaving some room for exceptions.

Trudeau announced Thursday that a federally-backed app using the technology will soon begin testing in Ontario, and he hopes to get other provinces on board to make it available countrywide in July.

Higgs called the decision "concerning," given "all the great work that our people have done internally here."

"We felt we could get up and running sooner. We felt we could get into a position and be able to supply a national app," he said.

"We all agreed … that it needed to be an app that would allow information sharing. It needed to be one that met all the criteria for privacy. And as long as it had that capability, then what difference did it really make?

"But the federal government has chosen an app. They're going to pay for it. I just hope we can expedite it as quickly as we felt we could otherwise."

The government of Canada's national contact-tracing app is built on COVID Shield, seen here, an open sourced tool developed by a group of volunteers from Shopify. (COVID Shield)

Contact tracing — tracking people who may have come in contact with an infected person in order to get them tested and isolated — is widely considered critical to a country's pandemic recovery until a vaccine becomes available.

Under the current manual process, public health workers interview people who test positive for the respiratory disease and rely on their ability to remember where they've been in the past several days, who they were near and might have been exposed.

Apps can speed up the laborious process, potentially reduce the number of transmissions and better control the spread.

Trudeau said it will be up to individual Canadians to decide whether to download the federal app, called COVID Alert, but the higher the uptake, the more effective it will be.

"There are over 30 million smartphones that could take this app in Canada, so we can talk about a significant portion of the Canadian population that could be protected by this app," he said.

How it works

The technology works by having people who test positive upload their results anonymously to the app using a temporary code given to them by a health care provider.

No geotagging will be used and the app will run in the background, without rapidly draining a phone's battery, Trudeau has said.

The project has been spearheaded by the Canadian Digital Service, a federal initiative, and the Ontario Digital Service, with help from volunteers from the tech firm Shopify.

Alberta launched its own contact-tracing app called ABTraceTogether on May 1, but some people have raised concerns a patchwork of apps across the country could lead to low uptake and inconsistent data.

The Alberta app is based on Singapore's TraceTogether application and uses Bluetooth technology, but only works if everyone involved has the app running on their phone and Bluetooth enabled.

So far, just over 200,000 Albertans have signed up.

Higgs announced a New Brunswick app was in the works during an interview with CBC News on April 28.

On May 26, he said it was being reviewed nationally.

Privacy recommendations pending

The federal app will undergo a security review by BlackBerry.

The federal privacy commissioner's office is awaiting more information about the app before providing recommendations to the government, said spokesperson Vito Pilieci.

"We are working diligently and responsibly to develop that advice," he said. 

Last month, the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners issued joint guidelines to governments contemplating such apps, describing them as an "extraordinary" measure that raise important privacy risks.

"The choices that our governments make today about how to achieve both public health protection and respect for our fundamental Canadian values, including the right to privacy, will shape the future of our country," they said in a May statement.

They urged transparency and accountability.

Bluetooth contact tracing: First, users download an app and enable bluetooth on their smartphones. Second, the app sends out a unique anonymized beacon to other devices nearby using the same app. Third, each phone records and securely stores beacons it comes in contact with. Fourth, the app downloads a list of beacons associated with anonymous app users who have tested positive for coronavirus. The device cross-checks those beacons with ones it came into contact with. If there is a positive result in the list, users receive a notification. (CBC)

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 6:56 PM AT

With files from Catharine Tunney

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