The Digital Transformation Agency has gone into bat for its COVIDSafe contact tracing app, defending it against a barrage of criticism from Labor senators.
Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) representatives fronted a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday focused nearly entirely on COVIDSafe, which was developed by the agency with help from a number of private contractors and consultants.
The app has identified 17 new close contacts in New South Wales and is yet to identify any in any other state or territory, despite the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria.
Labor senators questioned these “very underwhelming” numbers and raised concerns with how effectively it is functioning, why the Google and Apple framework for contact tracing has not been implemented and how its measure for a close contact was established and if this is the right way to do it.
It followed NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard saying that COVIDSafe has “obviously not worked as well as we had hoped”.
DTA chief executive Randall Brugeaud said COVIDSafe is “absolutely” working as intended, and there is no plan to adopt the framework on offer from the tech giants as this would switch from a centralised sovereign model to a decentralised approach to digital contact tracing.
This is despite the DTA previously saying that Australia would be “one of the first adopters” in the world of the Google and Apple framework.
“We are continually improving it. We’ve done 13 releases and a number of those releases included security improvements. We’ve worked domestically and internationally to draw the best expertise of the overall community and we know COVIDSafe is as good as any app in the world,” Mr Brugeaud told the Senate Estimates hearing.
Mr Brugreaud said the DTA is still in discussions with Apple and Google on improving functionality on the devices, but there is no plan to adopt a different model.
“COVIDSafe works as is written on the label – it supports the public health efforts in the way that aligns with the way we operate in Australia. There is no intention to jettison the current app or start again or take an entirely new app from another country or company. Our intention is to continue to use the current COVIDSafe app in line with requirements from the Department of Health,” he said.
The DTA also confirmed that private contractors including Boston Consulting Group and Shine Solutions have been paid a total of $5.24 million to work on COVIDSafe.
There is no potential to integrate QR codes into the app to assist with contact tracing, the agency told the Senators.
“In order to implement a QR code within COVIDSafe is very technically simple, we could easily add a QR code to COVIDSafe,” Mr Brugeaud said.
“But once we look at the legislation that controls the use of data that is captured by COVIDSafe, a QR code would naturally provide location-based information and the thing we are absolutely committed to do is to adhere to the legislation,” he said.
“The implementation of QR codes in COVIDSafe would actually go against the design of the application in that we are prevented from knowing where people are.”
At the estimates hearing, the DTA also defended its levels of staff turnover, which are higher than the public sector average.
“We are working in an environment where we have highly specialised staff that are in very high demand and short supply so it is not unusual for an organisation such as the DTA to have a higher than average turnover,” Mr Brugeaud said.
The agency also confirmed that it is planning to begin consulting on legislation to expand its digital identity scheme to the private sector within days.