Morrison says using COVID-19 tracing app a matter of 'national service'

He doesn't want to make it mandatory, but said doing so could help save someone's life.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has attempted to quash concerns over mass surveillance and intrusion of privacy in the nation's soon-to-be launched COVID-19 contact tracing app.

Morrison, speaking with media on Thursday, said that while there's a team of "Sherlock Holmes' out there" tracking cases, it needs to be lifted to an "industrial capability" by using technology.

"I want to stress this about the automated contract tracing … we are working on a tracing app that people can be involved in and there are still some issues that we have to work through on that. The privacy issues on that are being worked through very thoroughly, but the more people we have that ultimately take that up, when we are in a position to launch it, the better the tool we have, and the more able we are to be able to get down that road back," he said.

Rejecting the idea that Australia's app, which will be a rework of Singapore's TraceTogether, was more intrusive than the tech advanced by Google and Apple, Morrison said the permissive factors in Australia's version make it less invasive.

"The Google and the Apple proposal does exactly the same thing, it is just that it is not a consent-based model," he said. "The trace app which has been put in place in Singapore is a consent-based model and the reason we are not quite ready yet is we are still working through ensuring that it meets the privacy protections, robust, and up to a standard that we believe is necessary for the Australian context."

Speaking on Triple M Friday morning, Morrison refused to say he was going to make downloading the app mandatory, but said doing so was a matter of national service.

"For this to work, we need a lot of people to download this app … in Australia, my preference, my very strong preference, is that we do it this way, where Australians are doing it by permission and they download the app and we get a good coverage of people doing that, this is really going to help," he said.

"I don't want to be drawn on [making downloading the app compulsory], I want to give Australians the opportunity to get it right, that's my objective, that's my plan A, and I really want plan A to work. I'll be calling on Australians to do it as a matter of national service.

"In the same way people used to buy war bonds, back in the war times to come together to support the effort."

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.

Singapore has only had a 20% buy-in, and Morrison said Australia needed to at least double that for the initiative to work.

"If you download this app, you'll be helping save someone's life, and I think Australians will respond to this," Morrison said.

"Here is the simple deal: If people download the app, and more people have got it, the sooner we can start easing up on these restrictions."

The prime minister said it would not be used by law enforcement to punish people for breaking social distancing rules or even quarantine mandates.


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