COVIDSafe's problems aren't Google or Apple's fault despite government claims

Australia's COVIDSafe app is unreliable, and so far has proved to be of little practical benefit, but it doesn't have to be an ongoing political sideshow.
Written by Stilgherrian on

The iOS version of Australia's troubled COVID-19 contact tracing app, COVIDSafe, tries to connect to every device a user's phone has ever connected to, indefinitely, and that's just one of the lingering bugs.

Every time the Bluetooth controller disconnects from a device, such as when COVIDSafe successfully exchanges data with another app user, it will attempt the reconnect 15 seconds later.

"When devices go out of range or switch identifier, these connections will stay pending indefinitely," wrote Richard Nelson, when reporting the bug some 16 days ago.

"This is almost certainly the cause of COVIDSafe causing some (maybe not all) issues with connections to Apple Watch and other devices."

Both the Android and iOS versions of COVIDSafe have previously been reported to interfere with blood glucose monitors, as well as fitness activity trackers, earbuds, and in-car audio.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) acknowledged this iOS bug on GitHub the following day, but has not posted an update since.

Another unfixed bug prevents some iOS-to-iOS exchanges thanks to bad handling of payloads longer than Bluetooth's maximum transmission unit (MTU).

The government continues to blame the app's unreliability on both Android and iOS on a lack of cooperation from Apple and Google. According to tech community developers who've been debugging the app, that's not true.

"If the government are claiming that the issues are Apple's fault, then it just doesn't make sense when we know that there are perfectly good explanations that are not Apple's fault," developer Jim Mussared told ZDNet.

"We know that there's a bug here, and we know that it results in the app not functioning, and we know that it results in breaking connectivity to other devices. So what grounds have they therefore got to be blaming mysterious issues on iPhones?"

The government is also continuing to rule out moving to the contact tracing API developed jointly by Apple and Google -- which wasn't available when COVIDSafe was developed -- on the grounds that it would remove them from the process.

"There's no way we're shifting to a platform that will take out the contact tracers," said Nick Coatsworth, Australia's deputy Chief Medical Officer, in June.

The Apple-Google approach was designed to be more protective of people's privacy, but the flipside is that it can't provide data in all the ways a contact tracer might want.

One scenario is when a person who tests positive for COVID-19 tells a contact tracer that they were on public transport at a certain time. COVIDSafe logs could potentially identify which app users were in the vicinity at that time.

"Apple-Google doesn't really facilitate that direction of looking at the data," Mussared said.

"The Apple-Google system inverts the reporting such that the notified person (i.e. the detected contact) sends the details of the exposure to the authorities, however that info does not include the source of the exposure, only the time and 'risk metric'," he said.

That gets you a lot of the way there, which means it's at least useful for contact tracers while still preserving privacy.

"At least the Apple-Google thing works," Mussared added. "If you're gonna have an app, at least get some benefit from it."

Does COVIDSafe's cost represent value for money?

The government's spending on its coronavirus-related app is reportedly millions more than previously thought.

Technology company DELV has been paid more than AU$3.8 million to develop the coronavirus information app, reported 9News on Monday.

The total for work on that app and COVIDSafe was reportedly around AU$6 million.

DELV also "has links to the Liberal Party", according to 9News, although a spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt said "the entire procurement process ... has been undertaken under Australian Government procurement rules."

The federal government's coronavirus advertising spend has been more than AU$64 million, though how much of that was specifically for COVIDSafe is not yet known.

Meanwhile, Ireland's contact tracing app, which is based on the Apple-Google tracing system, has seen 1.3 million downloads in its first eight days.

"It still has to prove its mettle," Seán L'Estrange, a social scientist at University College Dublin, told the Guardian.

At €850,000 (around AU$1.4 million) the app is "dirt cheap", he said, given that the average cost of identifying each case of infection is €42,000.

"Even if it fails to produce the goods, little has been lost."

Stubborn politicians keep misrepresenting everything

The effectiveness of COVIDSafe, or rather the lack of effectiveness, continues to distract from the government's COVID-19 messaging. It didn't have to be this way.

The Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, continues to misrepresent COVIDSafe's utility and the research into its potential benefits.

"It's found over 200 specific cases of contact tracing where people have actually helped professionals who have used it to contact other Australians that may have been impacted," Robert told radio FiveAA Adelaide as recently as last Thursday.

"It's designed to augment manual tracing, and that's what it's doing," he said.

"As the Sax Institute says the truth is, it is critical to containing a second wave [of COVID-19 infections]."

Neither of these things are true.

COVIDSafe may have been used in 200 people's tracing procedures, but it has yet to identify a single individual who hadn't already been found by traditional methods.

The Sax Institute said that COVIDSafe "has the potential to be an important adjunct" to manual contact tracing, not "critical to containing a second wave", but only if the bugs are fixed and more people use it.

Continued social distancing and large-scale testing are what's "vital" to avoiding a second wave, they said.

These misleading comments by Robert, and similar ones by his ministerial colleagues, are nothing more than political spin designed to smudge over previous misinformation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is to blame, thanks to his daft comparison of COVIDSafe to wearing sunscreen, and the made-up target for app downloads.

Robert has said Services Australia's goals now include transparency, but we have yet to see that in the case of COVIDSafe.

An honest government could dig itself out of this hole by acknowledging that COVIDSafe was over-sold, and that there isn't any magical technical solution that'll prevent the spread of the disease.

A government with a spine would be happy to acknowledge that its strategy has changed, and simply suck up the usual whinging from journalists about "backflips".

After all, it's only a few million dollars, a tiny part of a total national COVID-19 response that has already cost tens of billions of dollars.

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