POLITICS
07/13/2020 19:50 EDT

Jason Kenney Accuses Feds Of Barring Tech Companies From Helping ABTraceTogether App

Alberta’s ABTraceTogether app has faced multiple challenges since its launch.

Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference on July 13, 2020.

A national COVID-19 contact tracing app is on its way, but Alberta’s premier accused  the federal government Monday of interfering with the province’s own similar app that was much earlier to market.

During a news conference, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government of instructing tech companies, including Google and Apple, not to help the provinces with their own contact tracing apps while the federal one is in development.

“The government of Canada has told Google and Apple not to work with the government of Alberta or other provincial governments on approving the TraceTogether app,” Kenney said.

WATCH: Alberta implements tax cuts, infrastructure spending to rebound from COVID-19. Story continues below.

 

In June, the federal government announced a national contact tracing app to help trace and identify possible COVID-19 cases. The voluntary app is set to be piloted in Ontario before a nation-wide launch later this summer, but has been delayed from its initially planned July 2 pilot launch.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in Canada to release an app back in early May. According to Alberta Health, more than 223,000 users — about five per cent of the province’s population — have registered on the ABTraceTogether app since its launch.

The Alberta app, modelled off of a similar program in Singapore, uses Bluetooth technology to conduct “virtual handshakes” between users and enable rapid contact tracing if a user contracts COVID-19. 

However, it has faced multiple challenges since it launched. On Thursday, Alberta Health announced it is investigating what they called “functionality flaws” in how the app works with Apple devices. Currently, the phone must be unlocked with the app running in the foreground for it to work on Apple devices. And while the Android app will run in the background, users must turn on ‘location services,’ despite the app saying it works only via Bluetooth.

Last week, Alberta’s privacy commissioner Jill Clayton released a 66-page report detailing security and personal privacy concerns with the ABTraceTogether app and how it uses and collects data.

“We have recommended that AH make information about potential privacy risks public, and update this information as necessary,” Clayton wrote.

On Monday, Kenney said the province wants to work directly with big tech companies to improve the app’s functionality and he has made “repeated requests” to the federal government to remove their objection to Google and Apple working with provinces.

“At the end of the day, by standing in between us and the large tech companies, they are effectively reducing the functionality of an app which can help us in the midst of a public health crisis,” he said. 

Representatives from Apple and Google did not respond to HuffPost Canada’s request for comment.

In a statement to HuffPost, federal Health Minister Patty Hadju’s spokesperson Cole Davidson said that Google and Apple have made their application programming interfaces available to the federal government for developing the national app. 

 

At the end of the day, by standing in between us and the large tech companies, they are effectively reducing the functionality of an app which can help us in the midst of a public health crisis.Alberta Premier Jason Kenney

When asked about Kenney’s comments, Davidson did not confirm or deny that the Trudeau government had barred companies from working directly with provinces on their own contract-tracing projects. 

“We are committed to building and launching a well-designed, user-tested application that is secure, reliable and easy to use,” he said. “To be the most helpful in our efforts to fight COVID-19, the app needs to be accessible and used by as many Canadians as possible. That’s why we continue to work with Apple, Google and our partners in jurisdictions across Canada on a voluntary national app that will be ready for download very soon.”

Davidson said there is no set release date for the federal app yet.

WATCH: Contact tracing “essential” to getting COVID-19 under control. Story continues below.

 

During Monday’s news conference, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said that representatives from Alberta have been assisting in the development of the national app. However, until it is ready, he argued the federal government should support provincial initiatives like ABTraceTogether. 

“If we’re going to be asked to help them in the development of another app, that’s fine, but look, let’s allow Google and Apple to work with us to ensure that the ABTraceTogether app is fully functional,” Shandro said.