The Australian Government’s tracing app explained – COVIDSafe app
The Australian Government are working tirelessly on ensuring that a second wave of COVID-19 cases don’t emerge once restrictions are lifted. In doing so, a number of measures are being explored to give Australians a better chance of going back to some form of normal life, one of these includes a virus tracing app for the general public. The app was officially released yesterday.
In short, it will enable a higher level of Contact Tracing to be used throughout the community to allow a faster backward tracing of any contacts someone who tests positive to Coronavirus might have had.
The problem is every report about this app – rightly – refers to “Tracing” and in many cases that word is changed to “tracking” and many are sceptical of a government “tracking us”.
Additionally, there is growing concern about personal information being accessed or stolen. With concerns in privacy already being caught by Google, Facebook and the likes, people are cautious about a Government tracing software installed on their phone.
One of the most important parts of this is to understand what exactly as a citizen are we giving up, and how lasting those effect were going to be.
Australians will need to be convinced the right safeguards are in place to ensure their data isn’t hacked, misused or accidentally released.
And this is particularly important, as the Government needs at least 40 per cent of the public to voluntarily sign up in order for it to be effective. And that’s going to be a significant challenge.
Whilst some are concerned, many are open to the idea to at least trialling the app, if it manages to speed up the process of identifying who might be at risk, and stops them from venturing out and spreading coronavirus, which ends up savings lives.
“If people take this app, that means we have greater confidence that if someone gets the coronavirus, we can more quickly trace down their contacts of people who they may have infected,” said Scott Morrison.
Mr Morrison insists that like in Singapore, who also has a COVID-19 app, only health authorities will have access to the data.
“It would only be in an instance where someone had coronavirus, you wouldn’t be mandatorily required to sign up to these apps — that’s not how Australia works,” he said.
So let’s explore more information about what we know so far about the tracing app.
How does the app work? What we know so far
The app uses Bluetooth technology to log phone numbers of contacts who also have the app on their phone. If the contact was within 1.5 metres for more than 15 minutes, their phone number is stored in an encrypted format.
If a person with the app becomes infectious the information can then be uploaded to the relevant health agencies who get a list of phone numbers but no personal details.
Government official said the designers want to ensure against people falsely declaring themselves infected and causing unnecessary anxiety and panic, so users will be asked to share their encounter history with the relevant health authority with the use of a PIN.
Only the relevant state health authority will have the ability to decrypt the shared encounter history.
Designers stress the only personal information collected will be the phone number of the app users, which is securely stored by a central agency, expected to be the federal Health Department.
The app will be used by the state and territories’ health agencies, most who have co-opted staff from other agencies to beef up their contact tracing efforts.
Can users opt out at any time?
Yes. Users will also be able to withdraw consent at any time. If so, the phone number will be deleted and the encounter history ceases to be linked to the users. After 21-days all history is deleted from the phone.
Are other countries using a tracing app?
Yes. The tracing app is actually not an original concept. China, Hong Kong, Russia and Singapore all have COVID-19 apps. The United Kingdom, Europe and the United States are developing them.
Singapore has even shared its app coding with Australia.
WATCH: Singapore’s TraceTogether app explained in short video
How many people need to download the ‘tracing app’ for it to be effective?
The Government needs at least 40 per cent of the public to voluntarily sign up in order for it to be effective. That widely-reported figure would mean 7.4M out of Australia’s 18.58M mobile phone users would need to install the government’s tracing tool. Whilst many predict this will be a significant challenge, there are promising signs of adoption, with more than 1 Million downloads registered within the first five hours of release, which was the Government’s five-day target.
This national project will need willing conscripts.
In Singapore, which perhaps has a more compliant and obedient population, just 20 per cent of people have signed up to the TraceTogether app.
Speaking on Perth radio station 6PR, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged it would be a difficult sell.
“If people believed and understood that if we could trace people’s contacts quicker and track down the coronavirus faster and save people’s lives … we could open our economy up more? It’s a bit like buying war bonds during the war.
“There are things we might not ordinarily do, but [do] in these circumstances to keep people safe, to save lives and to save people’s livelihoods and get them back to work.
“If that tool is going to help people do that, this may be one of the sacrifices we need to make,” he said.
What is ‘contact tracing’?
When you test positive to COVID-19, you are placed into isolation or medical care – but the other part of the process is your state health department begin the process of interviewing you to find out who else you might have infected.
They will ask you where you were yesterday, the day before and possibly the last two weeks. They will ask about all the people you were in contact with and for how long.
After establishing this list, they will attempt to contact people whom you might have infected, to recommend those people get tested also.
It’s a very manual process, relies a lot on your memory, and makes it very hard to really trace the impact of your infection other than on yourself and your immediate family.
Does this app track my movements?
No. There may be some apps around the world that also track your location – but there is absolutely no plan to track your location.
The app only records which users have come into contact with each other and not location data, and that data will only be accessible by health authorities.
Will the Government keep a log of who I’ve been in contact with?
No. The government’s proposed app stores any information it gets about who you’ve been with locally on your phone. That means there is no central server storing all the details about who talked to who and who spent time with who. This is critical because such a server would be a target for hackers.
The data held on your phone will be encrypted, so that keeps it secure too. The data only leaves your phone if you test positive to COVID-19. That data is then used by State Health officials to contact the people you’ve been in contact with to begin the process of additional testing to ensure the spread of the virus is slowed or stopped.
Even on your phone, the app only retains information for the most recent 21 days. Any contacts before that are purged each and every day.
Will the Government keep tracking me after the coronavirus pandemic is over?
No. The federal minister can end the app’s contact tracing abilities with the flick of a switch. Moreover, we the users can simply delete the app.
Because there is no central server of data, there is no data purge required.
The critical thing to remember is this App doesn’t work without your permission. This app stops working the moment you delete it from your phone and this app is being built to help bring the country out of the pandemic crisis.
The government have also stated that they would publish the code base so Australians can see which data it is recording.
What information do I need to share when downloading COVIDSafe app?
As per the app instructions, to register for COVIDSafe, you will need to enter your name, mobile number, age range and postcode.
COVIDSafe will not collect your location information. The app will note the time of contact and an anonymous ID code of other COVIDSafe users you come into contact with.
Your registration details will only be used or disclosed for contact tracing and for the proper and lawful functioning of COVIDSafe.
Would Google know more about my location than the tracing app?
Yes. So would most of your phone apps, like Facebook, Instagram and especially TikTok (who actually sends user data to China). And if you think you’re exempt because you’re not on social media, think again. Most app track your location, among a lot of other personal information.
Will my information be a target for hackers?
Possibly, but they won’t get much. Whilst hackers generally steal and sell information they find, other hackers may shut down or take information from an activist standpoint, or to make a public statement. The latter seems more likely if anything, should hackers target the tracing app, but there’s not much to worry about if they do. The information used for the tracing app provides a lot less valuable information to hackers than other apps for monetary purposes.
Michael Sentonas, the chief technology officer for global cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, said he would be comfortable using the app, and that other apps that people download to their phones were far more intrusive. “The general public have no problem downloading what they perceive to be a fun app and they don’t look to see what data is collected off the phone,” he said.
“They don’t look to see what data is being sent to what developer in what countries around the world… They are free because you and your data is the product. The app developers are monetising from is your information. There are apps that know significantly more than this app today.”
Mr Sentonas said collecting the data was not without risk, but there were far more accessible targets for hackers. “If the limited information that is going to the central server is attacked, based on what everyone is saying, the scope of what is there is going to be a lot less valuable to an adversary versus the thousands of other location they could target to get information,” he said.
Will the tracing app actually help prevent more cases or deaths?
Yes. Right now, if you get coronavirus, a lot of hardworking officials try to work out who you’ve been in contact with. This app simply digitises that process and speeds it up.
Think about if you got the virus and state health asked who you were with ten days ago, you wouldn’t know. You can’t remember the name of the lady in the queue behind you at Coles, the table you touched whilst waiting for a coffee, or even the cereal box you picked up and put back on the shelf… By identifying those at risk from spreading earlier, the more cases it will reduce. It’s also a massive productivity saving which will to allow us to get back to life quicker.
An analysis was recently conducted by QTE.AM, a group of Australian research and development companies that work on tech projects in artificial intelligence, photonics, and robotics. Their analysis is mainly based on reverse engineering the Android version of the app.
“With the caveat of working only with a decompiled code base rather than full source code, we could find no significant security flaws, no GPS and location tracking or unexpected server communication within the application and no behaviours significantly outside the stated purpose of this contact tracing application,” the analysis says.
Its detailed report on how the application works concurs with much of what the government says about how the app operates.
It confirms that the COVIDSafe app operation involves interaction with a central server. After a user registers, the app requests an anonymous ID from the central server.
To read more on the tracing up visit Government website on COVIDSafe app
Read more on common questions about COVID-19 from our article Common questions about the coronavirus for over 60s or visit our dedicated coronavirus portal with live-time tracking of cases and helpful Government information.
– Robert: no one surveilled through tracing app. The Australian. 20 April 2020. By Elias Visontay
– Convincing Australians to use government-sponsored coronavirus-tracing app a tough ask. The ABC.
By Stephanie Dalzell and Andrew Probyn. 15 April 2020. Read article
– Virus tracing app tweaked for privacy and security. The Australian Financial Review, published by Tom Burton & Tom McIIrol. 18-19 April 2020.
– “Government Coronavirus Tracking App” – we need it, and we shouldn’t be scared of it – but it MUST be done right. EFTM. By Trevor Long. 19 April 2020. Read article
– Would you allow your whereabouts to be traced?. ACS. By David Braue, 16 April 2020. Read article
– Critics lash choice of Amazon to store tracing app data. The Financial Review. By Andrew Tillet, 25 April 2020.
– Analysts reverse engineer COVIDSafe app to pull apart its functionality. The Australian. By Chris Griffith, 28 April 2020. Read article
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