Australia’s new contact tracing app

The Federal Government has launched COVIDSafe, an app designed to help health authorities track people who’ve been in contact with others infected with COVID-19. Within a few hours of its launch over a million Australians had downloaded it.

So what is COVIDSafe and how will it work?

COVIDSafe is a contact tracing app. It aims to enhance the tracing we do manually – which requires people to remember exactly where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with. This obviously has some limitations when it comes to accuracy and how quickly it can track down people.

COVIDSafe is an app you have on your phone, something most of us are never without. It’s a voluntary system so you choose whether or not to use it.

If you decide to opt-in, you’ll need to download it from Google Play or the App Store and agree to the terms. You’re then asked to enter:

  • your name (or fake name if you prefer) – so the relevant health officials can confirm they’re speaking to the right person if they need to contact you
  • your age range – so health officials can prioritise cases for contact tracing if needed
  • postcode – to make sure health officials from the right State or Territory who work in your area can contact you, and to prioritise cases for contact tracing, e.g. hotspots
  • phone number – so that you can be contacted if needed for contact tracing.

Once it’s installed on your phone the app will look for other phones nearby that also have the app installed. If you’re within 1.5 metres of someone (who also has the app) for 15 minutes or more, the app will give the other phone a ‘digital handshake’, taking note of the date and time, distance and duration of the contact.

COVIDSafe will then store this data in an encrypted format on your phone. It’ll stay there for 21 days – to allow for the longest incubation period of the virus (14 days) plus the time needed to confirm a positive test result. After 21 days the data will automatically be deleted.

If you test positive to COVID-19, you’ll be contacted by your state or territory health officials. They’ll ask you to upload the app data to the central server. If you agree, you hit the upload button on the app and the encrypted data will be uploaded. The info will then be used to track people you’ve been in contact with so they can be tested. The contacts uploaded to the database are only those encrypted in the app on your phone – not your personal contacts – unless they’ve been in close contact with you (e.g. people you live with).

Why does the government want us to opt-in?

We’re flattening the curve – yay for us! While this is great news we need to remember that most of us haven’t been in contact with the virus and are still susceptible to it, especially those of us who have chronic conditions, are older or have suppressed immune systems.

Our physical distancing measures have allowed our healthcare system to become better prepared for COVID-19 and (hopefully) not become overwhelmed by a lot of very sick people at once – as we’ve seen in other parts of the world. But it means that most of us are still vulnerable to this very infectious virus.

Knowing if you’ve been in contact with someone with the virus means you can be proactive and get tested, look after your family, isolate and prevent further spread. That’s the aim of this app.

But what about my privacy?

Understandably people are worried about their privacy and the security of their data.

So before downloading the app, it’s worth considering how much of our privacy we are willing to trade-off in order to achieve a potential public benefit.

Peoples level of comfort with this will differ with some people willing to download the app on its release while others will want more assurances and information before they utilise the app.

What you should know

First – it’s important to know that if you do opt-in you can uninstall COVIDSafe from your phone at any time. This will automatically delete all the information stored on your device and stop other users from collecting your contact data.

The design specifications and the functionality of COVIDSafe have not been independently analysed. Although the government has announced it will release the source code within two weeks for people to test.

Laws are being drafted to protect the use of your data on the COVIDSafe app. The government has stated that our information will only be used for the reasons of contact tracing and that strict laws will be introduced to govern the use of the information that COVIDSafe collects. But the Law Council of Australia expressed some concerns that the laws underpinning the legality of the app makes no provision for oversight and reporting on the use of this data ¹. The legislation concerning COVIDSafe will be introduced in May when Parliament resumes so we’ll have to wait and see what’s proposed.

The data collected by the COVIDSafe app will be stored by Amazon Web Services, a US company. This means that the Australian data they collect may be bound by US law enforcement (under a 2018 law) that allows them to obtain information held by US-registered data companies no matter where the data is held ².

What happens after the pandemic

When this is all over (can’t wait for all that happy dancing and partying!) everyone who has the app will be prompted to delete it. This will also delete all the app info from your phone. The information contained in the central server will also be destroyed at the end of the pandemic. However it’s unclear to predict when this will happen given the uncertainties surrounding the spread of the virus.

It’s not a magic bullet

As much as we’d like a quick fix, COVIDSafe isn’t a magic bullet. It’s just another tool to help us manage our way through this pandemic. It will work alongside the physical distancing, good hygiene, testing and the manual tracing we’re already doing.

COVIDSafe may help us end restrictions earlier and be proactive when it comes to testing and isolating if it lets you know if/when you’ve been in contact with the virus.

However at the end of the day, it’s important that we all ask questions, review the information provided by the government about the app and our privacy (even all the nitty gritty) and make our own decisions about whether we download the app.

We will get through this pandemic, it will just take some time – so stay safe, stay informed and be kind.

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