Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro on October 7. Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Why is Alberta clinging to its failed COVID-19 app?

The UCP’s rigidity indicates a deeper issue.

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In October, in the midst of a question-period exchange between NDP MLA David Shepherd and UCP health minister Tyler Shandro, Jason Nixon couldn’t help himself.

As Shepherd and Shandro traded rhetoric about whether Alberta ought to use the federal COVID-19 app, Nixon, the minister of environment and parks, chimed in with a chuckle: “The Trudeau tracing app.”

It was a silly moment, and not even the only one of that exchange—Shandro would call Shepherd “the Pizzagate member” shortly afterward for questioning the government.

But for anyone paying attention, it seemed a revealing moment. One that said a lot about the UCP’s strange handling of the COVID-19 tracing app issue, and perhaps of their broader approach to governance.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Alberta’s yearning for uniqueness

The Alberta government launched their COVID-19 tracing app, ABTraceTogether, on May 1. It was a customized version of a free, open-source app originally developed by the Singaporean government.

Three months later, on July 31, the federal government launched its own app, COVID Alert, developed by volunteers from e-commerce company Shopify, with Blackberry providing security expertise.

Kenney says the Alberta app is the better option, but ABTraceTogether has been plagued with problems from the start.

The basic idea of both apps is the same—your phone uses Bluetooth to exchange little bits of anonymous data with other phones nearby; if you test positive for COVID-19, that data can be used to alert those other phones if they have been close enough to catch the virus.

After a positive diagnosis, notifications go out immediately on the federal app, but Alberta’s is done manually through the provincial contract tracing system, which can take days.

The type of data being shared is also different on the two apps. Both require your consent but the provincial app uploads your phone number; the federal app uses an anonymous key.

Though the federal app has been adopted by eight provinces, Alberta and British Columbia have refused to do so. Alberta is the only province that has developed its own app.

Kenney says the Alberta app is the better option, but ABTraceTogether has been plagued with problems from the start. Critics say the UCP is playing politics.

In order to understand, we have to consider a few under-the-hood technical points.

For these apps to work, Bluetooth has to run in the background, while the phone is in your pocket. But smartphones can be security risks, and Apple’s iOS in particular has strict limitations on what apps can do in the background.

This means that in order to work properly on an iPhone, the app must be kept in the foreground—that is, open at all times with the screen unlocked. This is hardly practical, and since 53% of Canadian smartphones are iPhones, it makes the app ineffective.

In order to work properly on an iPhone, the app must be kept in the foreground — that is, open at all times with the screen unlocked.

But here’s the thing: This was something software developers were well aware of, not some hidden flaw. It’s precisely the reason why Apple and Google announced in April that they were partnering to implement a way to enable these types of COVID-19 apps without compromising the security of iOS or Android.

That announcement was April 10. ABTraceTogether was launched May 1. And the Google-Apple “exposure notification” feature was rolled out May 20. (However, the feature only works on iOS 13.5 and later, meaning it doesn't work on iPhone 6 and older devices.)

The federal app makes use of the Google-Apple feature. The Alberta app does not. One works as intended, the other does not.

A flurry of contradictions

Mathieu Fenniak, a Calgary software developer, says that when he heard earlier this year that various companies and governments were planning apps along the lines of ABTraceTogether, it didn’t make much sense.

“I wouldn’t say that I knew it wasn’t going to work, but I would have been extremely skeptical.”

Fenniak says that while it wasn’t initially certain what Apple and Google would do, once the two tech giants partnered on the question, it was clear that the only option would be using their narrow framework.

“I come from the perspective of a software developer who works in those ecosystems.” he said. “From that perspective, you learn to live with those limitations and deal with them. You don’t want to go against the flow of what Apple and Google are doing. It just makes your life miserable.”

Justin Trudeau politely but pointedly put the onus on the provincial government for dragging its feet to adopt the federal app.

The UCP promised that a software update would solve the problem. But Fenniak recently ran independent tests, leaving two iPhones running the app in the background next to each other for over a day. The logs showed no record of being exposed to each other. Things worked properly once the apps were in the foreground, but were inconsistent between Android and iOS.

The Alberta government dismissed Fenniak’s results, insisting that the software update had solved the problem.

The Kenney government has taken quite a meandering walk in its public pronouncements on this file.

On August 8, one week after the federal app was released, Steve Buick, the press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shando, said that Alberta would adopt it.

But more than two months later, Buick said they were still working with Ottawa to transfer the 247,000 users of the Alberta app to the federal app. Two weeks after that, on October 28, Shandro confirmed the province would adopt the federal app.

Two days later, Justin Trudeau politely but pointedly put the onus on the provincial government for dragging its feet to adopt the federal app.

I think this is a really unfortunate and clear example of this government’s rigidity.

Melanee Thomas,

Political Scientist, U of C

On November 5, Hinshaw announced that provincial contact tracers were overwhelmed and the responsibility for notifying close contacts of potential exposure would be delegated to Albertans in most cases. One day later, Kenney said the province would not migrate to the federal app, calling ABTraceTogether “a key part of our contact tracing system” and a “better and more effective public-health tool.”

“At the time of launch there were some technical challenges, but I’m pleased to say that those have been completely addressed,” Kenney said.

That effusive praise was called into question soon after, when the province admitted that tracing data from the app had only been used in about 20 cases and acknowledged that the iOS issue had not been resolved.

The provincial government’s main argument against the federal app was that it only notifies users of exposure and does not provide contact tracing data to health authorities. It turns out Alberta hasn’t even been using its own app for that purpose.

The Sprawl reached out to Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s press secretary, Steve Buick, for comment on this story but did not hear back by press time.

‘Clear example of this government’s rigidity’

The question, then, is: why is the government continuing to cling to a fatally flawed app when it could simply adopt the federal one for free?

“I think this is a really unfortunate and clear example of this government’s rigidity,” said Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

“Particularly their rigidity in their willingness to identify when a course of action is not working, acknowledge the reality of that and change direction.”

Instead of trying to do this competently or do what’s best for Albertans, we have them on the record saying it’s a partisan app.

Melanee Thomas,

Political Scientist, U of C

Ziad Fazel, a Calgary engineer whose online presentation explaining the flaws of the app went viral, says he believes the only reason Alberta pursued an app with technical limitations was to score a win against their favourite foil, Justin Trudeau.

“It’s very clear... ‘We’re first, we’re ahead of the federal government,’” Fazel said.

Which brings us back to Jason Nixon’s offhand remark in the legislature, invoking Trudeau’s name to deride the federal app.

Thomas says that even giving the government the benefit of the doubt about whether or not they should have known about the technical limitations up front, their continued fealty to the clear lesser of two options is concerning.

“It’s stoking the same polarized, partisan agenda vis-a-vis the federal government,” she said. “Instead of trying to do this competently or do what’s best for Albertans, we have them on the record saying it’s a partisan app.”

It’s worth noting that while the federal app is being used by about 20% of the population in the provinces that have adopted it—ABTraceTogether has only a 5% uptake.

While the federal app is being used by about 20% of the population in the provinces that have adopted it — ABTraceTogether has only a 5% uptake.

A recent University of Oxford study based on a model of a city of one million found that a COVID-19 outbreak could be halted if at least 56% of the population used the tracing app.

Since Albertans have the highest smartphone adoption rate in the country at 92%, we’d need about 60% of smartphone users to download and use any COVID-19 app.

An easy U-turn

The Alberta government paid nearly $1 million to Deloitte for work on the app in a sole-source contract. The app was free and open-source but would have required customization and back-end integration.

But Fenniak questions the choice of multinational corporation Deloitte.

“There is a tech community in Alberta that, had they reached out to, they probably could have gotten this work done for no cost.”

Given that ABTraceTogether has technical limitations that are unlikely to be solved, a low adoption rate, and a very dubious record of usefulness in contact tracing, the UCP’s continuing defense of it is baffling.

After all, the federal app seems appealing for a government with a right-wing ideology and a fetish for freedom and budget cuts—not only it does not cost anything, but unlike the Alberta app, no human contact tracer is required and users don’t have to provide any personal information to the government.

The federal app seems appealing for a government with a right-wing ideology and a fetish for freedom and budget cuts.

As mea culpas and U-turns go, this would be a fairly minor one.

The UCP already had reversed course and said it would adopt the federal app. If you were ever going to backtrack on something, this would seem an obvious choice.

But Thomas points out that if one views the situation through a partisan lens, this isn’t minor at all. Kenney would have to not only admit that his government’s approach was wrong, but concede that the federal government—and Justin Trudeau—did it better.

“That’s a silly way to interpret it, but I think that’s predominantly the way they would interpret it,” Thomas said.

If this framing is true, it is damning. If Kenney has indeed painted himself into a corner, forced to choose between saving face or admitting fault, then his actions suggest that the well-being of Albertans during an ongoing deadly pandemic does not tip the scales for him.

“If that’s where we are,” said Thomas, “if that’s the top-line reaction, then I think Albertans are in bigger trouble than we might have thought.”

Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics reporter for The Sprawl.

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