Currently, health authorities can only identify potential cases known to a confirmed coronavirus case. Authorities need to rely on the memory of the individual who has tested positive to painstakingly retrace and then investigate the previous fortnight of their interactions in the community – and it is only those known to the coronavirus patient that can be traced. Meanwhile, untraced contacts are unknowingly continuing to spread the virus. This is why the outbreak from the Ruby Princess was so difficult to contain.
Australia wants to get back to work, back to school, back to shopping, back to sporting events and back to an unrestricted life as soon and as safely as possible. The COVID-19 app is just one of the many scientific innovations Team Australia can employ to lift social distancing restrictions sooner rather than later.
So how does it work?
Once a user has downloaded the app, the Bluetooth technology in your phone “looks” for other users of the app as it does for all sorts of other smartphone app purposes such as airdropping your photos.
If other users are close enough, their phones exchange encrypted “keys” or pings. So if Alice and Bob are close enough, Alice will send A-key1 to Bob and Bob the B-key1 to Alice. The keys change every two hours. So now if Alice meets John two hours later, they will exchange new keys A-key2 (to John) and J-key2 (to Alice). The keys are collected and held on their phones, securely encrypted in the app for 21 days, after which they are destroyed.
If Alice at some point tests positive to COVID-19, she uploads the data from her phone and the keys she has collected on her phone are reconciled with the contact details for Bob and John. Health officials can then contact Bob and John using the mobile phone numbers they registered in the app. If Bob registered with a postcode in Victoria and John with one in Tasmania, the health authorities in Victoria will only get Bob’s details, while those in Tasmania will only get John’s.
Neither Bob nor John will ever know that it was Alice who tested positive to coronavirus, unless she chooses to tell them herself.
Similarly, users’ movements and locations are not collected or shared: the app does not know that Bob and Alice were at the MCG on a Friday night when their Bluetooth keys were exchanged.
Privacy around data collection and storage is not to be taken lightly, and thus the Australian government is considering strong safeguards for the information and users of the app. Downloading the app will remain voluntary and users can delete the app at any time after downloading.
Australians know that we are facing a global crisis. But what is unprecedented is that we have the chance to utilise technology to respond to coronavirus outbreaks at lightning speed and get our freedoms, lifestyle and businesses back sooner and more efficiently.
Katie Allen MP is federal member for Higgins. Prior to entering Parliament, she was a paediatrician and Population Health research professor.