Australia's COVID-19 trace tracking app still 'weeks away'

Minister Stuart Robert said the app is not surveillance and it is just digitally replicating a manual tracing process.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has taken the opportunity to clear the air about what Australia's COVID-19 trace tracking app would entail, saying the app was still "some weeks away" from going live.

Robert clarified the government is not working with Apple and Google, and that it is not tracking nor doing any surveillance.

"Currently, if someone contracts the coronavirus or COVID-19 virus, we go through a manual tracing process to ask them who have they been close to, so we can contact them to see if they've got any symptoms and encourage them to get tested," he said.

"All we are, now we are going to do, is to digitise that tracing capacity, very similar to what Singapore has done. That is the intent of it."

Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy this week 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.

While Robert said the Australian iteration of the app was still some weeks away, he said it was in the final stages of a Privacy Impact Assessment, with "very strong cybersecurity assistance" from the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate.

"But it works quite simply. So if I've got the COVID trace app on my phone, and … you have it as well and for whatever reason we are one and a half metres apart for more than 15 minutes, the phones will exchange mobile numbers in a highly encrypted form. And wherever I go, if I spend 15 minutes with someone one and a half metres away, it'll also pull their phone number if they're running the app and store it on a rolling 21 days," he explained.

"Now if I test positive for the virus, I would consent to say I've tested positive and those 21 days' worth of mobile numbers, securely held on the phone, that I can't see, will go to health professionals, and health professionals in the states and territories will contact those people."

Robert said a medical directory would then call that person to tell them they were in close proximity to someone with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes and ask they come in for a test.

"So we are just digitally replicating a manual tracing process," he said.

"The intent is it will be downloaded from the Apple or Google Store. And that you would consent to use it and you would have it running."

The minister said the app is "not that intrusive".

"Remember it simply replaces a manual process with a very fast digital process," he said. "But it absolutely would allow greater freedom of action because if there are people with the virus in close proximity to others health professionals can rapidly be contacted and then rapidly contact people that the infected person has been in contact with."

Robert -- who in October 2018 was found to have spent 20 times more than other MPs on his home internet, clocking up more than AU$2,000 a month, and blaming "connectivity issues" for the high costs -- said last month the federal government's online portal myGov had suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, when it was simply that thousands flocking to sign up for welfare had pushed the portal past its 55,000 concurrent users limit.


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