‘COVIDSafe’ to assist with Australia’s re-opening . . .
On April 26, the Australian government launched ‘COVIDSafe,’ a contact tracing app that uses the source code for Singapore’s ‘TraceTogether.’ The launch of the app comes as some Australian states with low case numbers prepare to lift COVID-19-related restrictions this week. Enabled by Bluetooth, the app registers other users who come within 1.5 metres for more than 15 minutes. Then, the data is stored for 21 days and allows health authorities to fast-track contact tracing in case of an infection. Prime Minister Scott Morrison likened the downloading of the app to a wartime civic duty and described it as a necessary step to easing of the restrictions. Since its launch on Sunday, more than two million – approximately eight per cent of the population – have downloaded the app.
Raises privacy concerns . . .
Naturally, the app has raised privacy concerns, and the Australian government has taken measures to build trust around it. The installation of the app is voluntary, and it does not collect location data. The data is uploaded to the government server, only health authorities will be able to access it, and will be deleted once the pandemic is over. The Department of Health has undertaken a privacy impact assessment for the app. Further, the government said that the data will not leave Australia, and that it will introduce legislation in May to provide a stricter framework around data handling. However, it is uncertain whether the new app will gain enough public trust to be effective. The Ministry of Health has targeted for 40 per cent enrolment, but a poll from April 21 indicates that public trust on this matter remains rather low – with only 35 per cent agreeing to the statement, “I’m confident the government will not misuse any data it collects about me via the app.”
The proliferation of contact tracing apps . . .
Besides Australia and Singapore, governments around the world are either using or considering developing contact tracing apps. In Canada, British Columbia and Ontario are pursuing app vendors and some other provinces are also exploring the use of such apps. Experts believe that the app installation rate must reach at least 60 per cent of the target population to be useful, much higher than is typically the case in countries that have launched apps. In addition to potentially low enrolment, fragmented implementation of contact tracing apps across provinces could also diminish their effectiveness. While mobile apps may seem promising, it is important to focus on investing in the right infrastructure and policies, especially testing capacity and supported movement restrictions.