The main issue? It doesn’t always complete digital “handshakes” with nearby phones that also have the app installed if it isn’t running in the foreground (on the screen at all times) or has been installed on an older iPhone model. Additionally, it may not work at all when the screen is locked. Android phones seem OK, but more than 50 per cent of smartphones in Australia are iPhones.
“The quality of the Bluetooth connectivity for phones that have the app installed, running in the foreground is very good,” said head of the Digital Transformation Agency Randall Brugeaud, whose agency is in charge of the app.
“It progressively deteriorates and the quality of the connection is not as good as you get to a point where the phone is locked and the app is running in the background.”
What does this mean? That the app doesn’t always do what politicians say it does, which is keep a list on your phone of everyone you come into close contact with in case you or they get coronavirus so that outbreaks can be contained by health authorities working to identify who needs to isolate.
This is despite Government Services Minister Stuart Robert saying via press release on launch day: “To be effective, users should have the app running in the background when they are coming into contact with others. Your phone does not need to be unlocked for the app to work.”
Health Minister Hunt refused on Wednesday to concede the app didn’t work as intended on iPhones. “It is working and it’s working well. We had the fortune of seeing what Singapore went through.”
The bureaucracy says the issues will be resolved when Apple puts out a global fix, but that’s hardly the point. When you have a Prime Minister, Health Minister and Chief Medical Officer linking this app to the easing of lockdown restrictions, one ought to hope that it does what it says it can do before they are loosened, such as is being considered this Friday via the national cabinet process.
This is a question of efficacy. And it matters.
If restrictions are eased and it’s linked to a half-baked app that was rushed out, that’s a real problem. It provides a false sense of security to millions of Australians, especially as it has been pitched as enabling more thorough contact tracing than is able to be done traditionally via a manual method.
If iPhone users need to keep the app open while a fix is in the works, then that’s what the government should tell them. Don’t treat them like fools and pretend everything is OK or count on it being fixed eventually. Give them the advice they need to hear now that will protect them.
Deloitte puts Australia’s smartphone penetration level among the highest in the world at 91 per cent. Australians are not naive when it comes to technology. They’re early adopters and they understand and embrace it.
But if this sort of misleading or ill-informed messaging continues then it will only further increase the trust deficit Australians have with governments when it comes to anything to do with technology.
Ben Grubb is a former technology editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Ben Grubb is a Desk Editor/Locum Homepage Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.