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Provinces consider their own contact-tracing tech as Ottawa tries to avoid ‘patchwork’

Alberta chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 in Edmonton in March 2020.
Alberta chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 in Edmonton in March 2020. The Canadian Press/Jason Franson
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Alberta is set to be the first province to launch a contact-tracing app to combat the spread of COVID-19, after its chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced Thursday that the province was in the “final testing phase” with the technology. The voluntary, Bluetooth-based system will speed up public health officials’ information-gathering about people who may have been exposed to a patient who has just tested positive for the virus, and will be available “in the coming weeks,” she said.

Governments across Canada told The Logic they are considering similar measures to track infections and alert residents—and Ottawa is trying to coordinate those responses. “Many provinces are looking into this solution, as well,” said Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains on Thursday, noting that he is in contact with organizations working on the technology. “From our perspective, the focus is on to avoid a patchwork.” The federal government wants “scalability and adoption,” but needs to ensure citizens’ privacy, he said.

Talking Point

Ottawa is trying to avoid a “patchwork” of contact-tracing technology across Canada, in an effort to ensure solutions to combat COVID-19 are widely adopted while protecting privacy. But some provinces and territories are in discussions with app developers and researchers to launch their own digital solutions, while others say they have no plans for such measures.

But while some provinces and territories are exploring their own systems and studying international examples, others told The Logic they have no plans for digital contact tracing. That could present a challenge to Ottawa’s efforts to broaden the reach and interoperability of antiviral technology.

“Ontario is currently exploring digital options to support enhanced contact tracing,” said Hayley Chazan, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, but “no decisions have been made.” The province is also planning to launch a new health data platform in June, providing researchers access to de-identified information from medical records to increase COVID-19 detection.

Provinces with relatively low case counts are also examining such measures.

New Brunswick is “considering a range of options with respect to contact-tracing technologies and proximity alerts,” said Bruce Macfarlane, a health department spokesperson, although he noted the initial focus is giving residents access to testing results and health information.

Saskatchewan’s health ministry is “assessing the information and experiences from multiple jurisdictions related to technology-based contact tracing programs,” said spokesperson Colleen Book. The department is working on ways to review the “many suggestions, offers of cooperation and solicitations from private vendors, researchers and other jurisdictions with respect to technology-assisted approaches.”

Elsewhere on the Prairies, Premier Brian Pallister’s government in Winnipeg says it is not planning to launch its own app. “Any work underway in Manitoba is related to the ongoing federal government discussions,” a provincial spokesperson said, which she described as “high-level discussions with provinces and territories about options for using technology for contact tracing or personal information collection as part of the response to COVID-19.”

British Columbia has received many offers to help with antiviral efforts, including from technology vendors, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Citizens’ Services told The Logic. But “there are no concrete plans for the B.C. government to launch an app to track contacts between British Columbians as part of the response to COVID-19,” she said. However, on Thursday, the CBC reported B.C. was seeking a vendor for a contact-tracing app.

It’s not alone. “Given Nunavut’s internet and technological limitations, tracing of this nature isn’t a consideration for our jurisdiction,” said Cate Macleod, press secretary in the office of Premier Joe Savikataaq. The territory has no reported cases of COVID-19 so far.

The Northwest Territories is also “not currently using such applications,” said a spokesperson for the department of health and social services. “We are monitoring all developments in contact-tracing technology, but we haven’t made any commitments.”

The Nova Scotia government declined to comment. The governments of Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon did not reply to The Logic’s questions about their use of antiviral technology by deadline.

In addition to the provinces and territories, Ottawa is talking to groups with ideas to fight the pandemic. “Our government is in discussion with Canada’s artificial intelligence and scientific communities,” said Véronique Simard, Bains’s spokesperson. “We are exploring innovative COVID-19 solutions from all sectors of the economy, including data and digital technology players.”

Advocates and experts have raised concerns about the efficacy of app- or personal information-based contact-tracing solutions, and that any resulting measures could disproportionately target vulnerable people. On Monday, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called for Canadian authorities to only impose mandatory data tracking-based technology to combat the virus as a “last resort,” and to ensure any such programs solve real public health needs and preserve privacy rights.

The Logic asked all 14 governments whether they would adopt the watchdog group’s recommendations, which were sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as provincial and territorial premiers. Book said Saskatchewan’s health ministry “[appreciates] the perspective of the CCLA” and that any tech solution will aim to support “public health and public trust in the health system through a measured, privacy-sensitive response.”

The Manitoba government will give “proper consideration” to the CCLA recommendations and “all other privacy protocols, available advice and legislative obligations,” according to the provincial spokesperson. Chazan said Ontario “looks forward to reviewing the letter” and is consulting the provincial privacy commissioner on its new health data platform.

Northwest Territories Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek said she was preparing a response to the CCLA, but noted she and her department do not have the power to make or modify public health orders.

New Brunswick’s health department will “ensure civil and privacy rights are maintained,” anonymize health information and obtain patient consent in any contact-tracing technology rollout, Macfarlane said.

The Alberta government has contacted Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton about its new app, “and no concerns have been raised,” Hinshaw said. In a subsequent statement, Clayton said her office was given “a high-level overview about the goals of this program” earlier in April, but that she had “not received detailed information.” The provincial government has committed to providing a privacy impact assessment for the system, she said.

On Thursday, Hinshaw also cited examples of similar programs in other jurisdictions. “These apps have already been used effectively in Singapore and South Korea,” she said. About a million people downloaded Singapore’s voluntary Bluetooth-based TraceTogether app in the first 13 days, approximately a sixth of residents. But local officials said the system needs to be used by three-quarters of the population to be effective.

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