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The coronavirus tracing app gets a privacy tick, but it will test Australians’ trust

Australians are desperate to see each other again and if this technology is adopted widely, it could see the easing of social gathering restrictions and be used to contain coronavirus outbreaks.

However, in Singapore, where a similar app was designed, the biggest issue was not privacy but the battery life of phones being drained and the requirement that it be open on iPhone user’s screens at all times. This resulted in it being installed by just 12 per cent of Singaporeans.

The COVIDSafe tracing app.

The COVIDSafe tracing app.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Australia thinks it has overcome this hurdle on iPhones, but scepticism remains.

“COVIDSafe app needs to be open to work effectively,” the government’s covidsafe.gov.au website said on Sunday afternoon. “Keep the app open and notifications on when you’re out and about, especially in meetings and public places.”

This was later changed to: “Keep COVIDSafe running and notifications on when you’re out and about, especially in meetings and public places.”

Asked about this, Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday: “In relation to signal strength, essentially we encourage you to have it on.”

Government officials have also indicated it should stay open and on a user’s screen and that reminders via push notifications will be sent to users to encourage this.

Jason Bay, the product lead of Singapore’s TraceTogether app, has said that keeping the app open had been a “major hurdle” to overcome “as users are unlikely to keep the app running all, or even most, of the time”. They also introduced “nudges such as occasionally push notifications to remind iOS users to keep their app running, especially in more crowded places like public transport”.

How Australia’s app, launched on Sunday at 6pm, will conquer this remains to be seen.

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Mr Bay also cautioned against seeing digital tracing as a panacea.

“If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, no. Not now and … not for the foreseeable future.”

The protections the Australian app provides seem sensible and balance public health needs with privacy. But there remains a trust deficit in Australia when it comes to technology created by governments.

One only needs to look at My Health Record, the handling of the metadata regime, legislation around encryption and the ability to bypass it, the 2016 census debacle, and the crashing of the Centrelink website amid the height of the coronavirus.

Will Australians trust this app and will it actually work as intended?

Many Australians hope so.

Ben Grubb is former technology editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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