TraceTogether: what we know so far about the Australian Government Covid-19 tracking app

Posted by Michelle Lewis on April 19, 2020

The Australian Government is planning to launch a Covid-19 contact-tracing application called TraceTogether in the next couple of weeks. What do we know about the app so far?

tracetogether app


To be effective, it is projected the TraceTogether app will need to be downloaded by at least 40 percent of the Australian population.

For this level of uptake, the public will need to be convinced the app has significant public health benefits and will not compromise their privacy. 

So here are the facts - as announced by the Government to date. 

 

Why have a tracking/tracing app?

The objective of the TraceTogether 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 TraceTogether 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 after the next four 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 app has not yet been released for public scrutiny but is known to be based on Singapore's TraceTogether app. That app taps Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices in close proximity. The app identifies other TraceTogether users who are within two metres 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. Health authorities will be able to download the data from a  newly diagnosed patient's smartphone to discover who they have been in close proximity to. They can then contact those people and ask them to come in for a test. 

 

tracetogether

 

What data does it collect?

The Singapore version of the app collects mobile phone numbers as encrypted data. According to Minister Robert the data will only be accessed with the owner's consent and only made visible to health authorities.

"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."

The app also collects information about phone models and signal strength, and anonymised app analytics data. Bluetooth has a maximum range of about 10 metres.  It has a low power signal that degrades very quickly over distance, so signal strength is used to measure the distance between two phones within a reasonable margin of error.

 

Can it track where I have been?

There is no suggestion that location data is being collected. The data collected is related to proximity, not to location of where that proximity occurred. TraceTogether does however need Location Permissions to  work out the relative distance between users. 

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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 TraceTogether is diagnosed with COVID-19, he or she will agree to upload their data to the Government health authority who will decrypt the information and begin contacting other TraceTogether users who have been in close contact.

 

Should I be worried about privacy?

To be successful the app will need to be downloaded by 40-50% uptake of the Australian population and the Government knows that it must alleviate any privacy concerns if it is to achieve this adoption level.

Until the app is released and the details are made public it is not possible to provide an objective answer to this question, however the Government has committed to releasing for public scrutiny the source code and a privacy impact assessment.

Government services minister Stuart Robert said the app is being put through a rigorous privacy impact assessment with the help of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, and the Prime Minister said it is being vetted by the Australian Signals Directorate,

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.

 

tracetogether security

Will the app impact my battery life ?

TraceTogether only works between phones that have the app downloaded and running. 

Minister Robert has sought to assure users that the app would be relatively lightweight and not a significant drain on a phone's battery, likening it to any other app a user might have running in the background on their phone.

“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.”

 

Who created the app?

The app is based on an app used in Singapore developed by its government department,  GovTech

 

Interview with Minister for Government Services , Stuart Roberts. Source: Channel 7 Sunrise


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