On Sunday 26 April 2020 the Federal Government released the COVIDSafe smart phone app. The COVIDSafe app is a direct response in our nation’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, using the power of smart phones, mobility and data to enhance Australia’s contact tracing ability and is a core requirement for relaxing social distancing restrictions.
The ABS tells us there are more than 22.6m people in Australia. Between us, there are approximately 17.9m smartphones. The app was downloaded 2 million times within 24 hours of its release – that’s nearly 9% of all people and over 11% of all smartphones. So while the consistent mantra from the Government has been to do less and stay home to flatten the curve, now Team Australia is being strongly encouraged to get downloading to flatten the curve.
The release of the app has been blanketed in debate, misinformation and conjecture. Some of it useful, some of it not. Like any smartphone app, COVIDSafe raises privacy and security questions – especially because data the platform collects is specifically for the purposes to protect against a sensitive health event. Given the unprecedented situation we are navigating and the speed at which Governments need to move, the app will be imperfect and no one should expect otherwise.
With this in mind it is important to establish some facts about COVIDSafe:
- COVIDSafe does not collect your location
- You don’t have to use your real name to sign up
- COVIDSafe creates an encrypted ID code and shares this code over Bluetooth
- The app records the date and time the digital "handshake" occurred, its duration and the proximity of contacts.
- Encrypted codes are stored on the app for 21 days before being deleted
- The user determines when to upload the information to the Government and when you delete the app and its data
- Only State and Territory public health officials will have access to the data collected
Whilst there has been significant debate and comment over whether Australians should download the app, the issue of trust seems to have been glossed over.
Let’s be frank – Governments here and around the world tend not to have a stellar record of rolling out IT projects, and COVIDSafe has been rolled out swiftly and without the usual rigor of community consultation, debate and refinement. The rapid development and roll out can be forgiven considering the circumstances, however the very limited legislative consultation which has occurred compounds any trust issues. Not to mention there does not appear to be a provision for any independent body to provide oversight and reporting on the use of the app. This element alone appears to be an omission on the Government’s part in their charm offensive, and a crucial one at that given the app could change its behavior with any future update. With that said, let’s not forget that some sensible security and privacy decisions have been made here such as 21 day data deletion, data stored on servers in Australia, and making the source code available. The Government is to be commended for these decisions.
How you view and manage your privacy is a personal decision. But where are you placing your trust?
Downloading COVIDSafe is a personal decision. If you are concerned about using the app, consider this: people download the next big app on a whim, post on Facebook and Instagram; they Tik Tok their way through isolation, upload photos to the cloud, use free public wifi, Google search and online shop. These activities, as innocuous as they seem, are governed by very lengthy terms and conditions which most of the world have never read. Take some time to understand them or to download the dossier these platforms have amassed on you and you may well be shocked – even frightened – at how much they know about you (things that perhaps even you didn’t know about yourself) because they are tracking your every move and those of your “friends” – online and in person.
These tech giants are a lot less regulated than the COVIDSafe app and rely on terms which have very few protections in favour of the user. Perhaps it’s time to delete Facebook and Instagram and download COVIDSafe instead. Who knows, it may even help you should you begin to feel a little unwell once you do a little more digging on where you have placed your digital trust.
So the Government is asking Team Australia to trust them when on past behavior they have not earned our trust. This is a big ask. But ask yourself if your usual digital platforms have earned your trust – and more so, would they be held as accountable as the Government would be if they broke it.