The tracing app will be launched soon. Picture: iStock
The tracing app will be launched soon. Picture: iStock

Mistake we are making about virus app

The Australian way of life has changed drastically since strict lockdown measures were rolled out to combat the lethal coronavirus.

But while most of us are struggling with the unprecedented social distancing rules, many are still wary of the Federal Government's new COVIDSafe app - even though it could be the key to relaxing those tough restrictions.

That's because the app, which is now live, will make it much easier for authorities to trace anyone an infected person may have come into contact with - but so far it has proven controversial, sparking privacy and security fears.

On Sunday, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy went to great lengths to assure Australians that the app was safe and enough had been done to protect their privacy.

One of the big fears is the app will track people's movements and location but experts point out that is not how it works.

WILL IT TRACK MY MOVEMENTS?

In a word - no.

"It will not track where you are through GPS," futurist and author Gihan Perera told news.com.au.

"It will just collect a list of people you've been close to, and that's the biggest concern people seem to have."

Mr Hunt said the data would not be able to leave the country, and would be deleted after every 21 days of use.

"This is, as the Attorney-General has said, probably the safest data that has been provided by any group at any time in Australian history," he said.

"It is the most basic of data, simply about helping to save your life, to protect your life and to protect the lives of our nurses and doctors."

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The app is designed to keep a list of other users you've been within 1.5m of for more than 15 minutes.

If someone does fall ill, authorities can then easily get in touch with their contacts and hopefully reduce the spread.

"The COVIDSafe app is about assisting," Senator Hunt said to media from Canberra.

"(It's about) finding those cases which may be undiagnosed in the community, helping people get early treatment, helping people have early diagnosis and to ensure that our doctors and nurses, our health workers, our families and friends are protected and that will save lives and protect lives."

The app requires Bluetooth access from your smartphone to work, and will essentially seek out other phones with the same app.

Once another person is detected and you remain in contact with that person for more than 15 minutes, your phone will keep a record of that person.

"In terms of privacy, no person can access what is on the phone, no other person can access what is on your phone. It is prohibited by law," Mr Hunt said.

Mr Perera told news.com.au in terms of personal information that is stored, when you download the app it will ask for your name and phone number.

"Let's say the Government relaxes the restrictions and you go to a restaurant - through Bluetooth, the app will connect with other people at nearby tables who have the app and exchange details … it just collects and stores the information on phones," he explained.

"Then, if you do happen to test positive for COVID-19, the health department can access the list of contacts you've been close to and inform them they should be tested."

 

The Australian Government's new voluntary app can be downloaded and people can register their details. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
The Australian Government's new voluntary app can be downloaded and people can register their details. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour

 

CAN YOU REGISTER WITH A FAKE NAME?

The Health Minister said that the name you use for the app doesn't need to be your real name, however it was advised to keep all information accurate. He also assured users that when the app was deleted from a phone, all contact information was also removed.

Registration will require users to input their mobile phone number (so they can be contacted if needed for contact tracing) their name (so the relevant health officials can confirm they are speaking to the right person) their age range (so health officials can prioritise cases for contact tracing) and their postcode (to make sure health officials from the right state and territory are dealing with your case).

WHAT DOES THE APP LOOK LIKE?

COVIDSafe only works on smartphones and can be downloaded from the Apple or Google app stores.

A screengrab of the steps taken when signing up for the app.
A screengrab of the steps taken when signing up for the app.

 

It will ask you to turn your bluetooth services on.
It will ask you to turn your bluetooth services on.

 

A screenshot of the the COVIDSafe app.
A screenshot of the the COVIDSafe app.

 

The final step in signing up.
The final step in signing up.

 

HOW WILL I KNOW IF A CONTACT HAS TESTED POSITIVE?

According to the Government Health website, state and territory health officials will call people to let them or their parent/guardian know if they may have been exposed to a positive case.

The health officer will provide advice on next steps, including:

• what to look out for

• when, how and where to get tested

• what to do to protect friends and family from exposure

Health officials will not name the person who was infected.

HOW DOES THE APP KNOW WHEN SOMEONE IS POSITIVE?

When someone downloads the app, it creates an encrypted code unique to each user.

When a person tests positive to COVID-19, they will be asked to voluntarily download the app and upload their close contact information to the Government's secure server.

This information will help health officials identify anyone you have been in close contact with who also registered for the app. From there, officials are able notify anyone of concern with a phone call.

"If you become infected with coronavirus, the app will assist health officials to notify people you've been in close contact with so they can self-isolate and get tested," the COVIDSafe website reads.

"This will speed up current manual processes and make it quicker to stop the spread of the virus, particularly if restrictions are eased."

WHY IS IT NECESSARY?

Mr Perera said the app would collect important information more quickly and easily than the current method, allowing is the governments next step flattening the curve.

"It's just a better way of tracking who you've been close to, and it's a more reliable way than what's been happening at the moment, where they just interview people," Mr Perera explained.

"Firstly you have to try and remember who you've been near and secondly you don't know the strangers you've been close to, so there's no way for authorities to follow up with them."

Senator Hunt said the app would be used to take care of health professionals, families and ourselves.

"It will help us as we seek to return to normal and the Australian way of life," he said.

"I will download the app because it will help to protect our nurses and our doctors and help to protect my family and other families."

 

Greg Hunt said no Australian should have any concerns about downloading this app. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
Greg Hunt said no Australian should have any concerns about downloading this app. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour

 

The app will play a large part in helping ease restrictions. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
The app will play a large part in helping ease restrictions. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour

 

WILL IT TRACK MY MOVEMENTS?

In a word - no.

"It will not track where you are through GPS," Mr Perera explained.

"It will just collect a list of people you've been close to, and that's the biggest concern people seem to have."

Mr Hunt said the data would not be able to leave the country, and would be deleted after every 21 days of use.

"This is, as the Attorney-General has said, probably the safest data that has been provided by any group at any time in Australian history," he said.

"It is the most basic of data, simply about helping to save your life, to protect your life and to protect the lives of our nurses and doctors."

WILL STRANGERS SEE MY INFORMATION?

Again, no.

"The other main concern people have is that the app will exchange your number with other people, but that's also not true - it will only keep the contacts on your phone, it won't be sent to a central database, and you won't know who is on your list," Mr Perera said.

"That only gets released if you test positive, and only to health authorities, not to anyone in the Federal Government, so that should allay some privacy concerns."

You also need to give permission again for the data to be uploaded from your phone to the servers.

Mr Hunt said data would not be used for any other reason, and cannot be used to enforce quarantine or isolation restrictions or any other laws.

"The data has to be kept on an Australian server. It cannot leave the country. It cannot be accessed by anybody other than a state public health official," he said.

"It cannot be used for any purpose other than the provision of the data for the purposes of finding people with whom you have been in close contact and it is punishable by jail if there is a breach of that.

"There is no geolocation. There is no Commonwealth access."

WILL WE BE FORCED TO DOWNLOAD IT?

Mr Perera said a lot of backlash occurred initially when the Government did not rule out forcing people to download it.

The Government has since vowed it will not be compulsory, but the more people who download the app the more successful it will be.

"If you don't have enough people using it, there won't be enough data for the authorities to be able to contact people and we won't be able to relax the rules," Mr Perera said.

But he said there was a chance certain organisations would require it.

"For example, when we go back to our workplaces, employers might make it compulsory to use the app before you can return," he said.

"And when air travel is opened again, I can certainly imagine airlines might insist that if you're going to fly, they will need to protect their staff and other passengers by making it compulsory."

But Mr Hunt said it would be illegal for anyone to be compelled to download the app, so if you don't want to, don't let your boss (or anyone else) make you.

 

The Government is urging Aussies to download the app. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
The Government is urging Aussies to download the app. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

WHERE WILL THE DATA BE STORED?

Fronting the press on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the server was in Australia and it was using Amazon Web Services, "who work with Australia on many, many sensitive issues".

"In terms of Australia's data management. It's a nationally encrypted data store. It … will be illegal for information to go out of that data store to any other person other than that for whom the whole thing is designed, and that is to support the health worker in the state to be able to undertake the contact tracing, with the data that they access being released by the individual for whom is the subject of the contact tracing," he said.

CAN IT FALL INTO THE WRONG HANDS?

Mr Perera said people were right to question all apps before downloading them and sharing their personal information, but urged Aussies to research the app themselves to learn how it will actually work.

"People should be concerned about their privacy, that's fair enough, but people think this app means the Government will know where you are at any given time, and that's not actually going to be the case," he said.

Mr Perera said the Government was also working to ease people's fears by promising to release the app's programming code publicly so users can see for themselves and ensure the Government was not "secretly gathering information".

"They are being open and transparent about this to encourage more people to download the app," he said.

He said while some people might mistrust the Government, it was "bending over backwards" in this case to regain trust that had been damaged by previous scandals.

"They are doing all the right things like not tracking your location, releasing the source code and making promises to wipe the data after the pandemic," he said.

"If they do it the way they are proposing, I will definitely use it myself because it seems like very low risk in terms of my privacy … and the upside is quite high as it will help relax restrictions and get back to normal and save lives by making tracing easier."

The government has also said it will be illegal for anyone but state or territory health authorities to access and use the data, and that includes the police not being able to get their hands on it either.

 

WHO ELSE SUPPORTS THE APP?

Mr Hunt said the following medical professions supported the app: The Allied health professions of Australia, the Australia College of nursing, the Australian College of rural and remote medicine, the strain dental Association, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian nursing and midwifery Federation, the Council of medical College of presidents representing all the medical colleges, the national Aboriginal community control and health organisation, the pharmaceutical Society of Australia, the pharmacy Guild of Australia, the role the Australian College of physicians, the royalist running College of GPs and the rural Doctors Association of Australia.

This week, Rachael Falk, the chief executive of independent agency Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre which is testing the security of the app, told the ABC she was "comfortable" with its safety.

Adrian Kelly, the president of the Real Estate Institute of Australia, has also endorsed it.

"Our entire industry has been impacted by the virus and we must all pull together during these final stages to do everything we can to ensure its containment," Mr Kelly said.

He urged anyone connected to the real estate industry to download and use the app including salespeople, business owners, property managers, receptionists, tradespeople and even tenants, those attending inspections and property owners, claiming privacy is "not an issue".

"Even" progressive think tank the Australia Institute's chief economist Richard Denniss is supportive, according to Mr Hunt.

"From time to time, Richard and the Australia Institute will have a difference of opinion with the government but he said he was supportive of it and that I could quote him to that effect," Mr Hunt said on Sunday afternoon.



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