Politics

Junk Explained: Here’s What You Need To Know About The Government’s Tracing App

"There is obviously a huge trust deficit here when it comes to expecting the government to act in a way that will actually respect people’s privacy."

covidsafe tracing app

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Anyone interested in downloading the government’s new coronavirus tracing app can find it in the app store by searching for ‘COVID Safe’.

Once downloaded you’re given a brief explainer on how the app works — for more detailed information, you can check out our explainer below.

After clicking past the government’s privacy policy you have to give consent for the Department of Health to collect your registration information and your contact details from other COVIDSafe users if they test positive.

covid safe app data

To sign up you’re asked for your full name, age range and post code, and then have to verify your mobile number. After that I actually can’t tell you what happens, because the app kept telling me my phone number is invalid. Good luck to the rest of you.

The COVIDSafe app can be deleted at any time, which will delete all information from your phone. The data in the secure information storage system will not be deleted until the end of the pandemic, unless you complete a request data deletion form.

According to the government’s FAQ’s, all data from people’s phones and from the app’s information storage system will be deleted at the end of the pandemic.

Is The App Safe

It’s no surprise that the government’s new coronavirus tracing app has been such a tough sell.

The app is being marketed as a tool to help track those who may have been exposed to coronavirus, to stop the spread quicker and lift restrictions earlier.

But combining data + tracing + government automatically raises red flags in our (understandably) cynical minds, especially considering data breaches are nothing new.

Recently, an independent agency which tested the app’s security announced they were comfortable with what they’ve seen, but people still have doubts about whether to download the app.

To get some answers Junkee spoke to Dan Nolan — the co-founder and chief technology officer at software company Proxima — who has worked in location-based technology for years.

He says while it could be a good tool to help limit the spread, there were still questions that needed to be answered to relax privacy concerns.

How Does The App Work?

Australia’s proposed contact tracing app will be based on a Singaporean app called TraceTogether. Essentially, if one app user tests positive for coronavirus it will help trace other app users who were exposed to them while contagious.

It’s voluntary — but it’s more effective the more people download it.

From what we know so far, the app will generate a unique ID — no personal information, and no geolocation needed.

It will use Bluetooth to detect other app users and exchange IDs, which are encrypted and stored on your phone for a rolling 21 day period. After that, the data is deleted.

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 you’ll be given a code to input which will send that encrypted data to a central server, where health authorities can decrypt the data and contact those app users you’ve come into contact with in the last three weeks.

The technology itself isn’t new — it’s the same principle that allows you to AirDrop things to your computer, or connect to wireless headphones.

The TraceTogether app was downloaded by about 20% of people in Singapore. To make the app effective ScoMo is hoping for a 40% take up here.

Why Are They Introducing It?

The government says the app will make contact tracing easier, which will help us stop the spread and lift restrictions quicker. It’s not going to end the crisis, but it will help.

Right now, there are a bunch of people who contracted the virus from an unknown source. Not knowing where people picked up an infection makes it much harder to contain.

“At the end of the day (you’ll have) more data on who potentially is impacted that you wouldn’t necessarily catch, like if you’re in a supermarket and you’re next to someone who has tested positive and you’ve never seen them before … it would be good to close that loop,” Dan said.

Right now if someone tests positive we’re basically relying on how good that person’s memory is, plus things like surveillance footage, to check who they might have infected.

Deputy chief medical officer Nicholas Coatsworth said the app would be “icing on the cake” to make this process more efficient.

“This is about letting those disease detectives know who someone has been in contact with for greater than 15 minutes and basically to help with our memory, if you will, because we cannot remember everyone we have been in contact with for over 15 minutes,” he said.

What Are Some Of The Issues?

Dan has worked in mobile development for years. He knows how hard it is to convince people to download an app, particularly those in the Venn diagram of people who don’t understand technology and are more vulnerable to getting seriously ill (old people, basically).

For the app actually do its job a lot of people need to download it, and he questions whether that’s likely given people’s privacy concerns.

“I think potentially it could be quite useful, but you’ve got to hit those substantial uptakes, you’ve got to have 60, 70, 80 percent of users … (and) getting people to install an app is really hard,” he said.

A game changer, he says, would be if the contact tracing is baked into apps we already have in our phone — something that Apple and Google are already working on.

This month they announced they’re working together to integrate opt-in contact tracing into their existing operating systems, something that Dan is slightly more optimistic about.

“I trust Apple and Google more than I trust the federal government at this stage … if only because there are legal recourses to Apple and Google lying about stuff in the same way that there really aren’t for the federal government,” he said.

That system would also be “decentralised”, meaning it sends out automatic alerts rather than storing data in a central server for health authorities to access.

What About Privacy Concerns?

Since announcing the app, the government has insisted it will not be used to pinpoint people’s locations or provide information to police or other agencies.

Services minister Stuart Robert has said it will collect your name, age range, postcode and phone number — but said they won’t track your location because they “don’t care where you are or what you’re doing”.

Not everyone is feeling reassured. Barnaby Joyce — who, incidentally, voted for the metadata retention laws — says he doesn’t trust the government with his data.

He’s not alone.

“There is obviously a huge trust deficit here when it comes to expecting the government to act in a way that will actually respect people’s privacy,” Dan said.

“The government has a really bad history of assuming the datasets aren’t de-identifiable, this has happened with Medicare… literally users’ entire health records were de-identified (in 2016).

“There are a lot of other things, once this genie gets out of the bottle, what it could potentially be used for that are worrying.”

Experts who assessed Singapore’s app found it was pretty good at keeping data safe from hackers, but it was easy to see how agencies with legitimate access to information showing who you were with and for how long could use it for mass surveillance.

In order to be completely convinced that the government is being transparent, experts are waiting for the source code to be released, as promised by Stuart Robert.

For what it’s worth, he has assured people all data will be deleted once the pandemic is over.

The head of an independent agency who tested the security of the app also said she was comfortable with it, and was satisfied it was designed to be accessed only by health officials.

“There’s not a lot of data that’s being shared beyond what’s shared in everyday transactions,” she told the ABC.

The first version of the app is expected later this week, so we’ll see then whether people a) have enough trust in the government, b) are happy to share data for the sake of a global pandemic, and c) can even be bothered to download it.


Feature Image: Twitter/ @KathrynORyan