Govt considers Apple-Google trace plan

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government is considering using the new technology-based COVID-19 contact tracing framework to be provided via an Apple and Google collaboration, as it appears set to launch an official app within weeks.

Late last week the two tech giants said they had teamed up to build a framework for Bluetooth-based contact tracing across iOS and Android devices. The companies will initially provide public health authority apps with APIs to facilitate this contact tracing across devices, and later plan to bake this function into operating systems.

Contact tracing apps use Bluetooth technology to record contact with other users, and notifications when one of these users have tested positive for COVID-19. It is regarded as one element in the fight to combat the spread of the virus, especially once social isolation limitations are lifted.

Tracking: Government to consider the Apple-Google tracing plans
Tracking: Government to consider the Apple-Google tracing plans

Multiple media reports on Tuesday night said the government has been working on a contact tracing app based on the Singapore government’s TraceTogether app, and is planning to launch it in the coming weeks.

The Digital Transformation Agency has reportedly been given the task. The DTA recently launched a recruiting blitz for a mysterious “key digital product” but has continually declined to confirm this is related to contact tracing.

The DTA has consistently declined to respond to InnovationAus queries about the development of a tracing app over the past week.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the government is aware of the Apple and Google announcement, with a final decision on its use to be made by the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers of the country.

“The Australian government is aware of the work Google and Apple are undertaking to increase the capabilities of their systems, and support contact tracing around the world. Any decisions in relation to such measures are for the National Cabinet,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.

It comes as the UK government has announced it would soon launch its own contact tracing app, which will make use of the framework to be provided by Google and Apple. The app, which is being developed by the DTA’s UK equivalent – the Government Digital Service – will be unveiled in weeks. The government saying that at least 60 per cent of the population would need to use it for it to be effective.

The unprecedented collaboration between rivals Apple and Google provides a “comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing”.

But it also presents potential privacy headaches, longer term data collection questions as well as a raised eyebrow on competition policy.

These APIs will be released in mid-May, while the two companies plan to build the contact tracing functionality into the underlying operating systems of their devices in the coming months as a “more robust” long-term solution. This would allow far more people to opt-in to the contact tracing feature, without downloading an app or even turning on Bluetooth.

The latest news has been cautiously welcomed by privacy and civil liberties advocates, with some arguing it is the best way to conduct digital contact tracing, but still questioning whether it is necessary at all.

The Apple and Google approach adopts a decentralised model, with neither the companies or government getting access to the contact records or Bluetooth pings, which would be stored on the individual devices.

If a user tests positive, they can allow their own individual, anonymised identification numbers to be posted publicly, and the app can tell other users if they have been in contact with these IDs.

This is similar to the model for contact tracing being pushed by privacy and civil liberties advocates around the world, who argue this is preferable than the government acting as the intermediary.

Cryptography expert Dr Vanessa Teague said that if the Australian government does choose to go ahead with contact tracing, this should be the preferred method.

“If contact tracing has to be done then the way they’re doing it is basically in the right direction,” Dr Teague told InnovationAus.

“What they’ve sketched out is a decentralised scheme in which each person keeps a record of their contacts which is stored on their own phone and if you test positive for COVID-19 then you broadcast publicly all the random looking numbers you’ve sent out,” she said.

“Then each person you’ve been in contact with can look at it themselves to see if they’ve been potentially exposed. There’s no central authority mediating interactions or keeping a record of them.

“Google and Apple have adopted the same thing as a bunch of us have already been advocating for. It’s the right one if we decide we want it at all.”

There are still numerous privacy concerns surrounding Bluetooth contact tracing though, Dr Teague said, and any government app should be open source and thoroughly tested.

“I hope they don’t do it in a centralised way. The jury is still out on whether this is the way we need to do it but it’s harder to justify in a centralised way when there’s an opportunity to do it in a centralised way,” she said.

“Hopefully the implementation will be open source and people should be able to test, if not the underlying operating system aspects then at least the application they are using and examine the source code to see what it’s doing.

“I hope the Australian government will support the open source apps that are under development. This way of doing it is better than alternate ways, but it doesn’t completely remove the fundamental privacy problems associated with doing contact tracing at all.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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