Contact tracing app expected in weeks

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

A Bluetooth-based contact tracing app is being developed through the federal Digital Transformation Agency and will be launched within weeks by the federal government.

Media organisations were provided details on the plan on Tuesday night, just days after Apple and Google announced they had teamed up to provide an open framework for public health authorities to launch contact tracing apps.

The media drops end weeks of speculation over the government’s plans around technology-based contact tracing, but will raise serious privacy concerns and questions over whether the government will be able to convince enough people to use the service for it to be effective.

Contact tracing: The app may allow for an easing of social restrictions

The Digital Transformation Agency is coordinating the development of the app and is understood to be working with the private sector to build it. The agency recently launched a recruiting blitz for a “key digital product” which will be a “national citizen facing digital platform”.

It also awarded a two-month, $136,000 contract to marketing firm 89 Degrees East at the last month for “communication and engagement strategy”.

The DTA has not responded to InnovationAus to multiple queries about the development of a tracing app in recent weeks.

The Australian government app will use the source code from the Singapore government’s TraceTogether app, which was launched last month and made open source last week. It uses Bluetooth technology to record close contacts between users.

If a user is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can send a list of their recorded contacts with other users to the government health agency, which then notifies these people.

This model has been criticised by Australian privacy and cryptography experts for placing the government in a centralised role as the intermediary.

The Australian contact tracing app will be voluntary, and the federal government will need a huge advertising effort to convince enough people to download it to meet the Prime Minister’s expectations for the app.

Scott Morrison has said he wants a minimum of 40 per cent of the population using the app, far higher than the 20 per cent of Singapore’s population that uses its leading TraceTogether app.

The government is attempting to sell the app as a way to help ease social isolation restrictions earlier.

It has also been in discussions with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner about the plan, which will bring with it numerous privacy and data security issues. The OAIC has set up a national privacy team to address COVID-19-related issues such as this.

There is some contradictory information in the media reports surrounding the announcement. Some claim that the app will use GPS data to conduct contact tracing, but this is highly unlikely given the Singapore model is based on Bluetooth technology.

Another report claimed that no data will be stored on a user’s phone, but this is also in direct conflict with how the Singapore app functions.

Privacy advocates in Australia have previously raised concerns with the digital contact tracing app model used in Singapore, with the centralised approach giving the government access to contact information of the users.

Several experts have argued this model could be tweaked and made decentralised, with the government not receiving a list of a confirmed case’s contacts. This list would instead be made public, and users or the app itself could identify if they are on the list.

Apple and Google announced an unprecedented partnership late last week which will see the tech giants release APIs for Bluetooth-based contact tracing in May. It will also later include the contact tracing functionality in the underlying operating systems of its devices.

These APIs and contact tracing frameworks will be made available to official government apps, meaning the federal government’s effort will likely be able to make use of it. But with plans to launch the app within weeks, Apple and Google’s effort will likely not be available by then.

The contact tracing app will likely be presented by Mr Morrison to premiers and chief ministers on Thursday at the meeting of the National Cabinet.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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