The Australian government’s new coronavirus contact tracing app was downloaded one million times within five hours of launch, meaning approximately one out of every 25 Australians is using it. It’s a notable uptake considering some Australians had expressed concerns about privacy issues.
Released on Sunday, COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth to connect with other phones within 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) which also have the app installed. If they are in contact for over 15 minutes, the app records data such as the date, time, contact distance and duration, and the other user’s encrypted identification code. This information is stored on the user’s phone for 21 days, after which it is automatically deleted.
Therefore, if someone using COVIDSafe is diagnosed with COVID-19, health officials can use the patient’s app data to quickly notify people they’ve been in contact with. The hope is that this will help contain outbreaks and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Australian states and territories are currently in various levels of shutdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, having reported over 6,703 confirmed cases and 81 deaths. Fortunately, the country’s efforts to flatten the curve appear to be having some success. Only 117 new cases were reported last week, compared to 297 cases the week before.
COVIDSafe sounds like a helpful app overall, but many Australians are naturally and justifiably suspicious about the entire concept of a government tracking app.
In response, the Australian government has assured the public that the app does not gather location data, and only requires users to supply their name, age range, phone number, and postcode. Users also have the option to use a pseudonym rather than their legal name. Data is kept on users’ phones, and will only be uploaded to a server if they give consent.
“It’s up to you whether you then release the information on your app, in which case it’s encoded, and encrypted, and sent to the national data store which is a server here in Australia.”
Further, uploaded data must legally be kept on Australian servers, and will be destroyed after the coronavirus pandemic passes.
“[The data] cannot leave the country, it cannot be accessed by anybody other than a state public health official, it cannot be used for any purpose other than the provision of data for the purposes of finding people with whom you have been in close contact, and it is punishable by jail if there is a breach of that,” said Hunt.
Australian developers have already gotten to work decompiling the app and have found it to be as secure as advertised, though they continue to dig into it.
“From what I can see, everything in the #covidsafe app is above board, very transparent and follows industry standard,” tweeted Australian mobile developer Matthew Robbins.
Hunt stated in a Monday interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the app’s source code will be released within two weeks, again emphasising the importance of security and privacy.
Aside from the app itself, some Australians have also raised concerns regarding COVIDSafe’s servers. Though operating out of the Australian capital of Canberra, the servers are run by American corporation Amazon. This has given rise to fears U.S. law may apply to these servers, which could give U.S. law enforcement access to the data.
However, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Government Services Minister Stuart Robert have both dismissed these concerns.
“This is exactly the same way the Australian Government already uses [Amazon Web Services] for many other agencies, including the work of our intelligence agencies, including [Australian Signals Directorate], and ensures Australian data stays in Australia,” said a spokesman for Robert.
Australia isn’t the first country to use phone tracking to help manage the coronavirus. The COVIDSafe app drew on Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which has been downloaded by approximately one in five people in the country since its March launch.
As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, countries around the world are increasingly turning to technology for solutions. Google and Apple even announced a joint effort to assist governments in tracking people exposed to infected individuals.
This rapid and widespread adoption makes it all the more important for people to scrutinise potential privacy issues. Fortunately, Australia’s COVIDSafe app initially appears as innocuous as a government tracking app can be.
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