Four months of the COVIDSafe contact tracing app: Where are we now?

Nearly four months has passed since the federal government introduced its COVIDSafe contact tracing app, touting it as a “critical tool” in the fight against the coronavirus.

Do you remember it?

The app, which works to quickly alert users who may have had contact with a positive case, was promoted to us as essential to lifting lockdown restrictions.

At its launch, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he wanted at least 40 per cent of Australians to download the technology, but has been eerily quiet ever since.

Tech experts told The New Daily this silence is “very significant”.

On Saturday, Mr Morrison said the app had now surpassed seven million downloads nationwide – an improvement from 6.4 million in July, but still well short of the government’s target.

Even still, there’s no way of knowing how many people actually activate the app when they step outside their homes.

The resounding silence

David Vaile, a surveillance and data protection expert at The University of New South Wales, said “the fact we’ve heard nothing for ages is very significant”.

“By doing this in a secretive way and not wanting that core data out about whether it’s working, the government has deprived themselves from the positive and negative feedback they would’ve gotten from other developers,” he told The New Daily. 

Mr Vaile suggested COVIDSafe app updates should form part of the daily coronavirus briefings about fatalities and case numbers.

He added there needed to be better communication around the app’s effectiveness or risk giving people a “false sense of security”.

“If you think your phone buzzes saying ‘Warning: an infected person is near you’, it doesn’t do that,” Mr Vaile said.

“It has a log, which rather ineffectively claims to detect proximity with certain criteria.”

Theoretically, the app keeps a record of all of our casual contacts who were within a 1.5 metre radius of us for at least 15 minutes.

If someone walks past you in the street and sneezes in your face, however, the app won’t register that encounter.

A fast-moving project

We’re now in late August.

Victoria is just over halfway through a statewide lockdown, fresh cases have been linked a Queensland detention centre and new infections have emerged from Sydney quarantine hotels and pubs. 

Yet there has been little talk of the COVIDSafe app – especially not in Victoria where case numbers have been highest.

For a period of time during the state’s second outbreak, Victorian health officials admitted they stopped using the app altogether.

“(Contact tracers) tried it initially in the outbreak, and the communities that were involved had a low download rate and most of the early transmissions were in family gatherings, where they identified the contacts anyway,” chief medical officer Dr Brendan Murphy told a parliamentary inquiry on August 4.

At the same time, the PM said NSW Health had identified two positive cases and 544 more contacts via the app.

Calls to ditch and switch

Around the world, countries have rolled out their own contact tracing apps aimed at tracking and controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Tech giants Apple and Google have been quick to take advantage, collaboratively developing their own contact-tracing technology to replace them.

Already, the United Kingdom, parts of the United States, Switzerland, Latvia, Italy, Canada and Germany are starting to ditch their own contact-tracing apps in favour of Apple and Google’s joint model that could achieve much more widespread adoption.

Ritesh Chugh, a senior lecturer in information systems at CQUniversity, thinks Australia should, too.

“When people start to travel and when international borders open, the moment you step out of Australia your COVIDSafe app won’t work any more,” Dr Chugh said.

When asked about privacy concerns, Dr Chugh said the Google and Apple’s system was “unique” because they required the user’s permission before handing data over to public health authorities.

Even if privacy couldn’t be guaranteed, he emphasised the coronavirus pandemic was a “life-and-death situation”.

“The dilemma is between our civil rights and identifying positive cases of COVID-19,” he said.

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