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Australia’s CovidSafe app debuts, source codes to follow

Australia’s contact tracing app has been downloaded more than 1.1 million times, even as privacy concerns linger on

Australia’s CovidSafe Covid-19 contact tracing app was released on 27 April 2020, and the next morning it had been downloaded more than 1.1 million times.

Federal health minister Greg Hunt said the government had hoped to reach a million downloads in five days, but it only took five hours.

He reiterated that the CovidSafe source code would be released for independent analysis within two weeks.

Caroline Edwards, acting secretary at the department of health, said developers had drawn upon code from Singapore’s TraceTogether app, but Australia’s app was unique to country’s circumstances.

According to the department, CovidSafe works by detecting the presence of another device running the app and recording the date, time, distance and duration of the contact, and the other user’s reference code.

The information is encrypted and stored on the phone for 21 days. If a user is diagnosed with Covid-19, the data can be uploaded with the user’s permission to a system accessible by state and territory health officials to aid in contact tracing efforts.

One problem is that many Australians seem to have little faith in government IT projects, with objectors pointing to a slew of past issues such as the 2016 census website crash and, more recently, the Centrelink website’s inability to cope with the flood of unemployment claims.

It is not clear why the app has been released before the source code was made available for review. However, the app was released on the same day that the Queensland and Western Australia (WA) state governments announced they were about to ease their social distancing measures.

From 2 May 2020, Queenslanders will be allowed to go for a drive within 50km of their homes, go for a picnic with members in their households or with just one other person, visit some national parks, and shop for non-essential items such as clothes. The WA easing took effect on 27 April 2020 and allows indoor and outdoor non-work gatherings of up to 10 people.

Another problem is concerns about privacy issues. Hunt has made a determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015 that data from the app may only be used for contact tracing, ensuring the app and associated servers are working properly, investigating breaches and producing anonymised statistical information.

The determination also prohibits anyone from refusing to deal with anyone who is not using the app. That includes declining to provide or receive goods or services, and making it mandatory for employees or contractors.

However, proposed legislation to criminalise breaches of the determination cannot be introduced to Parliament until the next sitting begins in the second week of May, giving sceptical citizens another reason to delay using CovidSafe.

Late last week, the Law Council of Australia called on the government to adopt core principles, including the adoption of a voluntary opt-in model and limitations on the collection of personal information, among others. The government appears to be addressing each of those issues. 

Australian information and privacy commissioner Angelene Falk said the department of health’s privacy impact assessment of CovidSafe had provided transparency and accountability for the use of personal information, and supported community confidence in the app.

“My office will watch the implementation of the contact tracing app closely. We can audit the system and investigate complaints from the public about privacy issues.

“We will also closely review the legislation that is intended to be introduced and monitor the implementation of the privacy impact assessment recommendations,” she said.

Read more about Covid-19 developments in Australia

Concerns have also been raised about the use of Amazon Web Services to store the uploaded data rather than a locally owned provider – even if the data remains in Australia.

CovidSafe has been endorsed by the nation’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, opposition health spokesperson Chris Bowen, Nobel Prize winning immunologist Peter Doherty, Australian Medical Association CEO Jennifer Westacott and Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, among others. 

A survey conducted late last week by think tank The Australia Institute found that 45% of Australians will use the app. That is good news for the government, which is looking for a 40% uptake.

But with half the population yet to be fully convinced, the government will need to “ensure strong privacy guarantees are legislated to keep the community on side and assuage any privacy concerns”, warned Ben Oquist, executive director of The Australia Institute.

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