COVIDSafe contact tracing app has launched. How does it work and is it safe?

Posted by Michelle Lewis on April 26, 2020

The Australian Government has launched COVIDSafe, a contact-tracing application which is considered a fundamental step towards the relaxing of social distancing requirements. 

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After several weeks of expectation and debate, the Australian Government has launched its tracking and tracing app, named COVIDSafe. 

Ideally at least 40 percent of the population would download the app for it to be fully effective, although the Government has indicated that any data is better than no data. 

 

Why have a tracking/tracing app?

The objective of the COVIDSafe app is to digitise what is currently a manual process of identifying and contacting people who have been in close proximity to a person newly diagnosed as positive for Covid-19. Rather than the host having to recall where they have been and who they have been with during the previous 14 days, the app will provide the information.

The app aims to speed the process of contacting people who may have been exposed to a Covid-19 host. It will also broaden the scope of contacts to include people that the carrier does not know, for instance someone they shared public transport with.

 

What are the benefits of the COVIDSafe app?

Adoption of the app is essential to allow the easing of lockdown conditions, according to the Government.

Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has said automatic contact tracing is a key component for relaxing social distancing measures. He has indicated uptake of the app could allow some restrictions on “high-value, low-risk economic activities” to be eased in coming weeks.

Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert believes Australians will download and use the app in exchange for an easing of restrictions.

“I think Australians will want to get back to the park. I reckon they'll want to get back to the beach. I think Australians will want to get back to their jobs.  And to do that, we have got to lean in to do effective tracing fast, and that's the beauty of the app.”

How does it work?

The COVIDSafe app taps Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices in close proximity. The app identifies the mobile phones of users who are within 1.5 distance for more than 15 minutes. The app collects identifying data which  is encrypted, and stored locally on the user's phone for 21 days - the incubation period of the virus. Anyone newly diagnosed with Covid-19 will be asked to provide consent for the data held on their phone to be uploaded to a government secured storage system. The information will then be made available to local health authorities who will alert with any close contacts. 

 

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What data does it collect?

  • At registration the user provides a name, age range, phone number and postcode, which generates an encrypted code. 
  • Close contact information collected is an encrypted reference code, date and time, proximity and duration of contact.
  • App logs capture app performance, troubleshooting and error data. 

All information collected by the app is stored within the app on the phone. Users can not access this information.

If tested positive for Covid-19, the data on the host phone will only be accessed with the owner's consent.

"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 (those) health professionals in the states and territories will contact those people," said Minister Robert.

 

Can it track where I have been?

No. The data collected is related to proximity, not to location of where that proximity occurred. CovidSafe does however need Location Permissions to enable Bluetooth which pings other connected apps and figures out the relative distance between users. COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth received signal strength indicator (RSSI) values to measure the signal strength between devices. Calibrated RSSI values are used to estimate the approximate distance between users during an encounter. 

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How is my data protected?

The mobile phone numbers collected are stored as encrypted anonymised IDs on phones. If someone with COVIDSafe is diagnosed with the virus he or she will agree to upload their data to the Government health authority who will decrypt the information and begin contacting other COVIDSafe users who have been in close contact.

 

Should I be worried about privacy?

The Government has committed to pass legislation when the Parliament returns in May that will apply strict privacy provisions to any data collected.

The Minister for Health has issued a Determination under the Biosecurity Act to protect people's privacy and restrict access to the COVIDSafe information to state or territory health officials for contact tracing.

It will be a criminal offence to use any app information in any other way. Other agencies including law enforcement, will not be able to access the information.

Political opponents have criticised the fact that legislation will not be passed until May when the app has already been launched. There is also a question mark over why the Government has yet to release the source code for independent analysis. Meanwhile privacy experts have warned the app needs to be decentralised, so that the central servers that store the IDs do not become honeypots for potential hackers. 

 

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Will the app impact my battery life ?

COVIDSafe will only work if your phone has Bluetooth running and the app open. 

The Government has advised that battery consumption is "only marginally greater with the app running," particularly on devices that are already Bluetooth enabled. 

“Unbeknownst to you right now you've got 30 apps on your phone because you haven't closed them down, and they're all using Bluetooth and all polling and we're making sure in terms of design of the code that [it] is not a heavy draw on Bluetooth on the phone.”

 

 

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