Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Department of Health has no target for COVIDSafe uptake

Whereas the Prime Minister is busy holding the nation hostage to get them to install the tracing app, the department responsible for the app has said it does not have an uptake target in mind.

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Image: Department of Health

On Friday, the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison effectively ransomed the lifting of coronavirus restrictions on the installation base of the government's COVIDSafe app.

"Well, the first step to getting back to that is downloading COVIDSafe," Morrison said in direct response to being asked when Australians could go back to the pub.

"Now, if that isn't an incentive for Australians to download COVIDSafe on a Friday, I don't know what is … I encourage them if they're talking to each other on Zoom, or they're having a cold one later on today in that environment, if they're looking forward to doing it in a pub, well, that is a prerequisite to even getting to that conversation."

Over the past few weeks, Morrison has repeatedly stated that he wants to hit an install base of 40%, however, whether that is 40% of the entire population or 40% of the 16.4 million smartphones in the nation, as reported by Australian Communications and Media Authority, remains an open question.

On Wednesday, Department of Health acting secretary Caroline Edwards told the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 that the department responsible for the app was focused on reaching critical mass, but described the over 5 million figure of Australians already using the app as a good start.

"No advice in relation to targets," Edwards said in response to questioning on whether Health had a number in mind before it would advise that restrictions be lifted.

"The more, the better."

Must read: Australia's COVIDSafe contact tracing story is full of holes and we should worry

At the same hearing, CEO of the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) Randall Brugeaud opened by stating 5,086,284 Australians have registered with COVIDSafe, the government's separate coronavirus information app has been downloaded 3.54 million times, and over 14.5 million messages have been sent through the government's WhatsApp chatbot.

Brugeaud added the government would make good on its promise to release the source code for the app towards the end of this week, or early next week.

Responding to a question on notice from the committee, the DTA said it had awarded Amazon Web Services a six-month contract from April 24 to October 23 for a cost of AU$709,059.

"The contract awarded is in accordance with Agency's and government's principles as enshrined in DTA's Whole-of-Government Hosting Strategy," the DTA said.

"AWS solution is a robust, risk-assessed solution with data sovereignty and supply chain integrity."

The DTA also contracted three additional companies in the app's development -- Boston Consulting Group, Shine Solutions Group for helpdesk support, and Ionize for cybersecurity assessment -- but figures and terms for the individual contracts were not stated, but the total figure for the app is currently at AU$1.5 million.

Health said it had spent somewhere in the order of AU$50,000 to AU$65,000 on the app.

On Tuesday, the Department of Home Affairs revealed it had spent over AU$416,000 on procurement of an "early 'conceptual prototype' design" of COVIDSafe across a 10-day period. That figure consisted of over AU$220,000 to Boston Consulting Group, almost AU$165,000 to Amazon Web Services, and over AU$31,000 to CTO Group.

Similar to DTA, all Home Affairs procurement was from standing arrangements.

See also: Canberra using a cold beer on a Friday as a guilt trip to download COVIDSafe

Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo told the committee his department was looking at coronavirus responses from around the world when the DTA came knocking.

"The digital technology agency [sic] on the 23rd of March ... said, 'We don't have the capacity at this stage to look into this, we're working on the earlier app, the information app, not the tracing app, would you mind having a look at it?' We were very happy to help out," he said.

The work of Home Affairs was subsequently handed off to the DTA on April 3, as well as all prototype designs and other relevant information, after which Home Affairs had no involvement. Pezzullo said Home Affairs did not hand across any AWS procurement, and the selection of AWS for the app's infrastructure was made by the DTA.

Brugeaud also confirmed on Wednesday that the app has issues with Bluetooth on iOS devices, and has "no issues whatsoever" on Android.

"There will be circumstances where the app will not capture a Bluetooth handshake, but our option was to wait until every feature was running perfectly and deliver a solution in six or 12 months time, our focus has been [on] privacy, security, performance," Brugeaud said.

"Bluetooth performance that we have in Australia with our contact tracing app is as good as anywhere in the world. We are working through the process to make that even better."

The DTA CEO said Australia would be one of the first adopters of Bluetooth API changes made by Apple as a result of the collaboration with Google on contact tracing infrastructure. Apple phone users should expect performance to improve in a fortnight, he said, and the app currently performs best when iPhone users have their phones unlocked and the app is in the foreground.