May 28, 2020

Relaunching Alberta Part 3: Contact tracing apps can do good, if we get out of our own way

We’re eager to open up the economy and get back to some semblance of normal life. However, we are also aware, many of us intimately, of the risk for a second wave of the virus and the reality of illness, loss of loved ones, and potential for additional shutdowns for individual businesses, sectors, or the entire economy. 

The most perverse quality of COVID-19 in an open economy is its ability to hide out in a seemingly healthy individual as that person gets groceries and helps customers at work, unknowingly spreading the virus in each interaction.

How do we control the spread as we open our doors to semi-normal? This is where contact tracing comes into play, with the goal of notifying all individuals as quickly as possible whenever they come into contact with an infected person in order to self-isolate and break the chain of infection.

What are the gaps in the traditional model of contact tracing?

Digital contact tracing apps have been promoted as a useful supplement to the work of human contact tracers to fill some of the gaps of the traditional method.

One of the crucial gaps of the traditional model is its heavy reliance on an infected individual’s memory to recall, in the frenzy of just learning that they are sick: all of the friends and family at recent picnic; everyone near them on the train into work; and every customer and colleague they interacted with over the last 21 days.  

This would be a tall order for a healthy individual, let alone someone sick with an infectious disease. What’s more, how can they be expected to remember people they hardly know?

Another shortcoming is the time it takes to notify all contacts. Working from an incomplete list, a team of human contact tracers scrambles to contact each person to advise them to self-isolate and get tested. Especially as Alberta’s economy relaunches and interaction among Albertans increase, this highly laborious process could take days, during which time, the virus would continue to spread.

READ MORE: Relaunching Alberta Part 1: Solving the daycare problem

How much privacy are we giving up with contact tracing apps?

Enter: contact tracing apps, designed to immediately identify and notify all who have been exposed by an infected individual over the last couple of weeks.  

But for every comment made of its potential as an important tool in containing the spread of COVID-19, there is a warning of its infringement on individual privacy. The assumption is better containment of the virus by using an app means sacrificing privacy and personal information.

But how much privacy is sacrificed varies widely from app to app. Some are invasive: the app currently used in China provides each person with a unique barcode which they scan as a ‘pass’ for entry into public places if they are deemed low-risk or “green”. If at any point the individual has been near someone infected, their barcode changes from green to yellow or red for self-isolation or government quarantine.

Other apps were built to strike a better balance between privacy and effectiveness. All apps that use the new software created by the Apple-Google partnership must follow strict privacy guidelines set by the two companies. Once a user voluntarily downloads an app, their phone’s Bluetooth signal determines phones that are nearby and exchanges a frequently changing, unique identifier. If a person tests positive, they can then choose to report the positive test through the app so that all individuals ‘exposed’, based on these unique identifiers are notified and self-isolate immediately. 

Most importantly, the Apple-Google framework does not use or collect any location data; users remain anonymous; data is stored on individual devices and cannot be stored in a centralized location; use is voluntary; it does not allow any kind of targeted advertising; and all data is destroyed based on a ‘sunset clause’.

In a recent interview, privacy advocate and former privacy commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian said of this platform, “The Apple-Google framework protects privacy like none other”.  She added with conviction, “I’ve looked under the hood of this thing, twice”.

So, while Albertans’ Facebook posts, Google searches, and Amazon orders are algorithmically monitored to determine individuals’ preferences and recommend analogous products and news, apps based on the Apple-Google model do none of these things.

READ MORE: Relaunching Alberta Part 2: Adapting CERB to the post-shutdown

What about the ABTraceTogether App?

Alberta’s ABTraceTogether app was one of the first contact tracing apps to launch in North America. Introduced on May 1st, it was built from the same software as Singapore’s TraceTogether app which launched mid-March.

ABTraceTogether does not currently use the Apple-Google software (it became available May 20th) but can choose to do so. It does, however, work similarly: the app uses the phone’s Bluetooth signal to make an “encrypted digital handshake”, as Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, explained it.

But the latest data show just 11% of Albertans have downloaded the app, a far cry from the closer to 60% experts recommend for digital contact tracing to be effective.

How do we assure privacy and increase use of ABTraceTogether?

Updating the current app to take advantage of the Apple-Google software could go a long way.

Privacy concerns remain the biggest hurdle: people need to trust the app. This means Albertans need to be assured from many, objective privacy experts that ABTraceTogether is not only safe to use but careless not to.  Shifting to the Apple-Google software would mean ABTraceTogether must comply with their strict standards of privacy which have been informed by privacy experts across North America. Even if the app as it stands already complies, this step could help to prove its security to Albertans.  Beyond this, there is a need for more education on how the app works, how it protects privacy, and its benefit to Albertans from the leaders whom people trust in schools, at work, and in local government.

The app needs to work. The biggest failing of the existing software of ABTraceTogether is phones must be unlocked for the app to work, unlike the Apple-Google software which allows apps to work in the background of a locked phone. Transitioning to this software will make ABTraceTogether more user-friendly, ensuring that every download means another app in use.

The app needs to be national and, ideally, international. Recently, the federal government announced that it will be putting forward a national approach to contact tracing. This is yet another reason for ABTraceTogether to take up the new software: apps that use the Apple-Google software are built to work seamlessly together meaning Albertans could continue to use ABTraceTogether without fear that it would not capture data from non-Albertans coming to the province, or when Albertans themselves visit other provinces.

The importance of broad-based contact tracing is underscored from a recent update from the CDC which states close contact person-to-person spread is far more common than from infected surfaces. If the same app is widely used in airports and at tourist destinations, this could provide the basis for safe travel across North America, a boost to livelihoods and a remedy for the badly suffering tourism industry.

Fully mobilizing ABTraceTogether through the Apple-Google software could limit the spread while accelerating recovery and enabling travel, all while protecting individual privacy. What is there to lose?

Explore Insights:

Share This