Australia looks to 'go harder' with use of COVID-19 contact tracing app

It is eyeing Singapore's TraceTogether app that documents the interactions of individuals via Bluetooth.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has said the country has been looking closely at what Singapore has done to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, including some of the technologies that the city-state has been put in place.

Murphy told a New Zealand parliamentary hearing that Australia is "very keen" to use Singapore's coronavirus contact-tracing app, TraceTogether.

"We've actually got the code from Singapore, we're very keen to use it and use it perhaps even more extensively than Singapore," he said.

"Obviously there's a conversation to have with the community about the acceptability of it, but we think that idea of the TraceTogether app is a really excellent one, if you've programmed it properly and got the right community buy-in, and so we're actively looking at that as part of a measure that might be used to perhaps consider some relaxation of measures."

The TraceTogether app taps Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices in close proximity to allow them to identify those who have been in close contact when needed.  

The app is able to estimate the distance between TraceTogether smartphones as well as the duration of such interactions.

It identifies participating TraceTogether users who are within two metres of each other for more than 30 minutes. The data then is captured, encrypted, and stored locally on the user's phone for 21 days, which spans the incubation period of the virus.

Read more: Singapore introduces contact tracing app to slow coronavirus spread

TraceTogether is built on the BlueTrace protocol, designed by the Government Digital Services team at Government Technology Agency of Singapore.

Last month, the Singapore government announced it would open-source the app.

"GovTech Singapore is now working around the clock to finalise our protocol reference documents and reference implementation, so that others may deploy their own flavours of TraceTogether -- each implementing the BlueTrace protocol," Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post.

"We believe that making our code available to the world will enhance trust and collaboration in dealing with a global threat that does not respect boundaries, political systems or economies."

TraceTogether currently boasts over 1 million users.

Speaking of lifting some of the measures put in place by the Australian government in response to COVID-19, Murphy said a relaxation could only be done if there is absolute confidence that there is a really good public health response system capable of "aggressively" locking down outbreaks.

"We're exploring app proposals for contact tracing where we've got a public health workforce now of several thousand in across our states and territories … the only way you could do any relaxation is if you've got the capacity to go in really hard and control an outbreak," he said.

"We will go harder if necessary."

Murphy said contact tracing is currently taking three days in Australia.

Addressing media on Wednesday, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said that in order for the tracking app to work, complete public confidence and trust from the public that their privacy is going to be protected, is required.

"The tracking app will only work if there is very widespread uptake on the part of the public so that a very high proportion of Australians are prepared to put this app on their phone," he said.

"The government's record in this area is not a good one. They haven't proved able to build confidence, for example, in My Health record, the electronic preservation of Australia's health records and throughout this crisis I'd have to say the government has not proved very good at taking Australians into their confidence.

"It will need to do a great deal better on this tracking app because I say again, it's not going to work unless Australians have trust, have confidence, that their privacy is going to be protected if they upload this app onto their phone."

At the time of writing, the World Health Organization reported that there have been nearly 1.8 million confirmed cases, with over 117,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. Australia has reported around 6,400 cases and 61 deaths.

More than 336,000 tests have been conducted across Australia.

Updated 15 April 2020 at 2.30pm AEST: Added comments from Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.


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