Why we’ve downloaded the COVIDSafe app

COVID-19 COVIDSafe app on an android phone

About 1.9 million Australians – about 8 per cent of us – downloaded the COVIDSafe app in the first 22 hours of its release.

The speed of the uptake may have exceeded Health Minister Greg Hunt’s expectations, but it is still well short of the 10 million users the app will need to work effectively. And while early adopters are a promising sign, it is no guarantee of mass acceptance of the app.

In Singapore, 1.1 million users had downloaded their TraceTogether app (on which the Australian version is based) in the first month; but half of these downloads came within the first 24 hours. If Australia follows the same path, we will have around 4 million users – 16 per cent of the population – by the end of May.

Whether the Australian Government can convince more of us to download the COVIDSafe app depends on its actions, through legislation, its communication, and its openness.

If you download the COVIDSafe app, which contains a unique encrypted key, it sits silently on your phone. When your phone comes into contact with another phone carrying the app, they exchange keys. If you are subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, a health professional will give you a PIN which you can choose to enter into the app. If you give your consent, a list of encrypted keys will be uploaded to your state or territory health authority, so they can more easily trace people you have been in contact with over the past few weeks. Nobody, including the health professional or you, can access the contacts through the app on the phone.

Wide use of the app will help the fight against spread of the virus in Australia, because it will help our health authorities to trace the contacts of people with COVID-19 more quickly and comprehensively.

It is noteworthy, and pleasing, that the app has received broad support from the health sector in Australia, and from the Australian Privacy Commissioner.

Technology professionals have decompiled the Android version of COVIDSafe and explored the source code, finding that the app does what it says it does. Minister Hunt announced this morning (Monday 27 April) that the source code for the app will be released in a fortnight. This is a welcome step towards greater openness.

There are two main privacy concerns with the app.

Firstly, the Federal Government has an ‘anything it takes’ attitude to use of personal information in pursuing people who are critical of it or its policies. This includes a track record of leaking personal information, despite there being legislative safeguards against this. Within the past fortnight, there was an apparent leak from the Department of Health against the prominent ABC health journalist Dr Norman Swan, who has criticised the Government’s pandemic response. It is understandable that, despite all the talk of strong safeguards, many Australians will remain concerned about potential misuse of their personal information.

The second concern is not with the app or the legislation as they stand now, but as they might evolve. Fear of ‘function creep’ – where data is used beyond its original purpose – is valid. Indeed, the Federal Department of Health has acknowledged ‘public concerns that information collected by the app will be used for purposes other than contact tracing, including law enforcement’.

The Government will introduce legislation in the next parliamentary sitting week to ‘establish a strict legal framework’ for use of the application’s data. This will go some way to assuage concerns about function creep. But more needs to be done.

Each of us will have to weigh-up these concerns against the undoubted benefits that the app provides. The benefits of the COVIDSafe app will depend on the number of Australians who use it. The app brings traditional public health contact tracing in Australian into the 21st century. Fast, accurate contact tracing, combined with increased testing capability, will help health professionals minimise the spread of COVID-19, and respond quickly to future flare-ups. It may enable people to safely return to school, university, or work sooner.

Despite the risks, we have decided to download the app as part of our support for sensible public health measures to reduce COVID-19 infections in Australia.

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