Govt eyes Singapore COVID-19 tracking app

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

There could soon be an Australian version of Singapore’s coronavirus tracking app, with the federal government urgently reviewing the technology amidst the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

An Australian Government coronavirus app being put together locally is a simple information and guidance app, rather than something that identifies contacts and helps with contact tracing.

The TraceTogether app, developed by the Singaporean GovTech agency, uses a smartphone’s BlueTooth to voluntarily track a user’s movements and proximity to others. If another user is diagnosed with COVID-19, any user that has been in close contact with them is alerted and told to self-isolated.

Singapore Sunset
Tracking: Govt urgently reviews Singapore open source app

It uses a phone’s Bluetooth connection with another phone to do this and alerts them if they have been within 2m of a known COVID-19 case for at least 30 minutes.

The app also helps to facilitate testing for individuals who need it. Location data is stored for three weeks, making contact tracing for COVID-19 cases more accurate and reliable, and easing the burden on government agencies doing this.

The app was rolled out last week and had more than 500,000 downloads in the first 24 hours.

A Department of Health spokesperson in Australia confirmed that the federal government COVID-19 information app to be launched next week would not include the tracking functionality.

But the federal government is understood to have ordered a fast-track review of Singapore’s TraceTogether app with the possibility that a localised version could be launched shortly. The Singaporean government has made the app open-source, meaning Australia would be free to copy its source code.

“We believe that making our code available to the world will enhance trust and collaboration in dealing with a global threat that does not respect boundaries, political systems or economies,” Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.

“Together, we can make our world safer for everyone.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a video conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon on March 23, where the approaches and tools used by each country to combat the spread of coronavirus were discussed.

Mr Morrison later confirmed the Australian government is looking closely at the Singapore COVID-19 app.

“We’re doing a lot of effective work there about how digital methods can be also used to assist in identifying contacts and to be able to shut those down as was practised in Singapore,” he told the media last week.

“So those delivery methods are also being looked at by the Commonwealth and we’re making a lot of progress there.”

The surveillance app may raise privacy concerns in Australia, and questions over how to balance this with the public health need. It’s unclear whether it would comply with Australia’s existing privacy laws.

It comes as the Malaysian government announced that it too was working on replicating the Singapore COVID-19 tracking app.

“A few days ago, Singapore launched a mobile phone app called ‘TraceTogether’ that can track the movements of people so that in a positive case, they can look at the individual’s movement history and warn others who have been near the patient to be screen,” Malaysian Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said.

“And I can announce that Malaysia is also preparing such an application.”

In a blog post about the app, Singapore’s GovTech said it transforms smartphones into “contract tracers”, making the process of contact tracing significantly less labour-intensive and time-consuming.

It is based around who a user has been in contact with rather than where they have been, with GPS struggling in indoor and highly urbanised settings, GovTech senior director of government digital services Jason Bay said in the post.

The app does not collect any real-world geographic location, Mr Bay said. Phones with the app installed send other nearby devices a timestamp, Bluetooth signal strength, the phone’s model and a temporary identifier or nickname.

If someone is diagnosed with the virus, the user can upload their information to the government, which will then decrypt it and begin tracing contacts of them, based on the Bluetooth data.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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