COVIDSafe App: Should You Download It?

By Juwariya Malik

The COVIDSafe app was touted as ‘essential’[1] to stopping the spread of COVID-19 and reopening Australia’s social and economic activity. But despite its millions of downloads, was the app ever truly necessary or even helpful to reduce the spread of the virus? Further, during its operation, the app has been met with many critical privacy concerns, especially after its data storage contract was awarded to technology giant, Amazon.

Operation

The basic underlying function of the app is to help the government efficiently monitor the spread of COVID-19 by assisting health workers to notify individuals who have come in contact with coronavirus. Downloaded from the Apple App Store or Google Play, users are to insert personal details including their name, age range, mobile number and post code providing an encrypted, personalised reference for their app’s operation. Utilising Bluetooth technology, the app uses a ‘digital handshake’ to log contact with other users, including the date, time and proximity of the contact. This data is stored for a rolling 21-day period to allow for the incubation period and time taken to confirm a positive test result, and then deleted from the user’s phone. The information was stressed to be encrypted and confidential.[2]

Necessity

The question is whether the app is or was ever truly necessary to stop the spread of the virus and promote an earlier easing of restrictions. While presently the spread has largely been contained within New South Wales, at the time of its introduction there was a greater risk posed by community transmission. Even though the app had reached its 40 per cent download rate desired by federal politicians in operation, it was likely only half of those individuals were using the app properly and at full functionality. According to Adam Dunn, the Head of Discipline for Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health at the University of Sydney, this means ‘that there would only be a fewer than one in 20 chance that potential contacts would be captured by the app.’[3] In its operation, it has yet to provide much assistance to health authorities with its data accessed only 30 times since its launch, and only one person being reported to have been identified using that data.[4]

The dissemination of the COVIDSafe App was similar to Singapore’s contact tracing app ‘TraceTogether’. However, the latter still has not experienced success due to a low number of downloads for reasons including privacy concerns and public indifference to the app while the nation is under effective lockdown.[5]

Privacy

Despite data encryption that will at most share your phone ‘make’ and model, which is not a large risk for most individuals, there is always a potential risk with any app that uses such digital handshake technology. Since Bluetooth technology opens a channel for two-way communication between devices, this can expose one’s phone to vulnerabilities. Further, although Health Minister Greg Hunt has shown a determination to protect people’s privacy and restrict access to app information to state or territory health authorities only for contact tracing purposes under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth),[6] this can be amended or repealed at any time. Concerns have also been raised about the United States accessing the data by after the government has issued its data storage contract to technology giant Amazon. However, it was stressed by politicians that this would not extend to accessing specific contact tracing data of Australians obtained by the COVIDSafe app, and only pertain to issues such as technical concerns.[7]

Overall, the app will still remain a tool of assistance to be used in conjunction with other methods including social distancing and a staggered easing of restrictions. However, it is doubtful that the app will serve an ‘essential’ or integral purpose for lifting Australia out of the global pandemic, as was originally intended.

Hey there! I’m a third year Bachelor of Arts/Laws student, majoring in Politics and International Relations with a minor in Media, Culture and Technology. With that mouthful out of the way, I have a keen interest in social justice issues, especially how the law interacts with marginalised groups in society.

[1] Bogle, Ariel. ‘COVIDSafe has been downloaded by millions, but yet to identify contacts (and authorities say that’s a good thing)’. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2020-06-11/coronavirus-contact-tracing-app-covid-safe-no-close-contacts/12343138.

[2] Australian government. ‘COVIDSafe help. ’https://www.health.gov.au/resources/apps-and-tools/covidsafe-app/covidsafe-help#how-the-app-works

[3] Bogle Ariel. ‘Can Australia’s coronavirus contact tracing app COVIDSafe lift the country out of lockdown?’. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2020-05-06/coronavirus-contact-tracing-app-covid-safe-lockdown-lift/12217146

[4] Taylor, Josh. ‘How did the Coidsafe app go from being vital to almost irrelevant?’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/24/how-did-the-covidsafe-app-go-from-being-vital-to-almost-irrelevant

[5] Lin, Liza & Ping, Chong Koh. ‘Singapore Built a Coronavirus App, but It Hasn’t Worked So Far’. Dow Jones Institutional News. Accessed http://search.proquest.com/docview/2393266722/.

[6] Greg Hunt. ‘Press conference about the COVID Safe app launch’. NSW Health. Accessed https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/press-conference-about-the-covidsafe-app-launch.

[7] Besser, Linton & Welch, Dylan. ‘Australia’s coronavirus tracing app’s data storage contract goes to offshore Amazon’. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-24/amazon-to-provide-cloud-services-for-coronavirus-tracing-app/12176682

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