Robert says COVID-19 tracking app will bring Aussies closer to having the footy back

Meanwhile, former leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce is concerned the Chinese government might 'hack' into the app.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor on

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has said downloading the government's soon-to-be launched COVID-19 contact tracing app would bring Australia closer to having restrictions loosened, allowing the nation to "get back to the footy and get back to the beach" sooner.

"It's not about surveillance, it's not about tracking there's no geolocation. All we're doing is digitising a current manual process," Robert reiterated over the weekend.

"Could you imagine having to try and get hold of CCTV footage off Woolies to try and work out who the 90-year old lady behind you is? Within minutes, state health has got the information they need to rapidly call other Australians. And think about if you were in the line behind someone else, who'd been tested positive, you'd want state health to call you quickly as well?"

He said the Department of Health doesn't care where people are, just if they've been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

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

Pointing to privacy concerns, such as someone "visiting their drug dealer", Robert said with no geolocation, it won't be known that's what was happening when a block of 15 minutes or more has been logged between two people.

"All we care about is who the person was next to," he said. "Because there's no geolocation, no one knows where the young person was or what they were doing, there's no surveillance at all. It's simply who they were near from a health point of view."

The app, which is "coming soon", will be a rework of Singapore's TraceTogether.

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 Prime Minister Scott Morrison has 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 last week.

"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.

Morrison tweeted over the weekend that the app would not be made mandatory.

"This is really a big team Australia time. If we want to loosen the restrictions and get back to the footy and get back to the beach and get back to the movies and get back to restaurants, the prime minister has been abundantly clear we need to have more testing, more tracing," Robert added.

"The more Australians who download it and use it, frankly, the quicker we're getting back to the footy, mate."

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 and said last month that the 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 -- said the app uses the native Bluetooth function on an Android or Apple phone.

"If you're running the app and I'm running the app, just like normal apps run, you probably have got 20 of them running right now, Bluetooth is always sort of looking for bits and pieces," he said.

"In this case, the app will say, 'oh look, another app is within one and a half metres, I'll start a count', and if it's within 15 minutes of that one and a half meter proximity, it'll then do the number swap all resident on your phone, all secured, no one can access it, and will only go to the national secure health national data store and then to state officials, if you test positive.

"And of course, when you blow the app away it's all deleted. And when the pandemic is finished, I'll blow the national data store away."

Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources Joel Fitzgibbon said while he'll "absolutely" download the app, a lot more reassurance both on the privacy and data protection fronts will be required to get 10 million Australians to do the same.

He said Labor would continue its push to have privacy and data protection taken seriously, floating the idea to task the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security with "running a ruler over this proposition".

Also speaking on Monday morning, former leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce said his major concern with the app is that there's the potential for it to be hacked.

"Doesn't matter what they say, there's always capacity for people to hack into it. When you've got four pieces of information -- and this was done by a study by de Montjoye at Imperial College London and also UC Leuven in Belgium -- that I have a 90% chance with just four random pieces of information of working out who this person is that is using it," Joyce said.

"The people who hack into mine data sets are not benevolent, the malevolent and we will know that the Chinese government at one instance have been hacking into our computers.

"We've controlled the coronavirus better than any other nation. I believe because of the diligence of the people, the goodwill of the people doing the right thing. And I don't want to affect that goodwill by excessive overstep."

The four bits of data are name, age, postcode, and mobile number. 

At the time of writing, the World Health Organization reported that there have been over 2.2 million confirmed cases, with nearly 153,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. Australia has reported around 6,600 cases and 71 deaths.

More than 424,000 tests have been conducted across Australia.


Editorial standards