Albertans Concerned Over ‘System of Data Surveillance’ With Government Contact Tracing App

Alberta has rolled out a digital contact tracing app to help monitor COVID-19 infections as the quarantine restrictions begin to ease. Whether people actually use it is another issue entirely.

Earlier this month, Alberta launched the country’s first contact tracing app, ABTraceTogether, to help trace people who have come into contact with an individual infected with COVID-19. But according to a new report from Reuters, only 165,000 Albertans — less that 4 percent of the population — have downloaded the app.

In contrast, Singapore’s contact tracing app, which served as the model for Alberta’s, has 1.4 million users — almost a quarter of the population of the nation.

“We all know we need to increase the uptake,” said Jia Hu, the medical officer for Alberta Health Services who is leading the rollout of the app. “People are scared of the government having their data. That’s why we made it as lean as possible.”

The underlying issue is the population’s general distrust of how the government will handle user data — the fear that “Big Brother is watching over you with the app,” says Hu. Many, including Brenda McPhail at the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, are concerned whether “a system of data surveillance” is necessary.

“There’s a great deal of hype and a lot of push for the idea,” McPhail said of contact tracing apps. “We are rapidly considering a wide range of measures that are rights infringing during this pandemic.”

The report notes that ABTraceTogether collects “phone numbers and total time spent with people who have come within two meters of each other for a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period,” but retains no location data.

Hu notes that the entire population doesn’t necessary need to download the app, but the more that do, the more effective it becomes. “It’s not that if we have 10% (uptake) it’s useless, and with 80% it’s useful. It’s just the more we have the better,” Hu told Reuters.

“This app is literally going to save lives,” concludes Hu, adding there was “a direct connection between downloading the app and going back to restaurants and seeing your friends and family and traveling again.”