Govt releases highly redacted COVIDSafe report


Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government has been forced to release a report on the effectiveness of its controversial contact tracing app COVIDSafe, but has removed all parts relating to this and left only basic information and positive comments.

The report, released this week following a Freedom of Information request, has wholly redacted all of the parts relevant to its effectiveness and comes nearly a year after the government was required to release it.

COVIDSafe uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to log close contacts between users and then send these to a national database and state health authorities if a user tests positive for COVID-19. It was launched by the federal government with much fanfare in April last year.

Accompanying legislation enshrining privacy protections around the app in law required the Department of Health to report on the operation and effectiveness of the app and the national database every six months.

This report must be prepared “as soon as practicable after the end of each six-month period”, and must then be tabled in Parliament within 15 days of completion.

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Credit: Daria Nipot / Shutterstock.com

Despite it now being nearly 18 months since COVIDSafe launched, the government is still yet to produce any full report on the effectiveness of the app.

The Department of Health paid global research firm Abt Associates nearly $250,000 last year to complete the first of these six-monthly reports. The report covering April to October last year was handed to the government in March this year, but is still yet to be publicly released.

Following a Freedom of Information request by The Canberra Times, the government has this week released a highly redacted version of this report, with all analysis of the effectiveness and operation of the act removed.

The only elements left visible in the report relate to the basics of how COVIDSafe works and its launch, and positive elements, such as the quick timeframe it was developed.

The FOI release does reveal that the COVIDSafe report was handed to the Department of Health on 30 March this year. Despite being required to table it in Parliament within 15 sitting days of this happening, there have been 17 sitting days since then and the report still hasn’t been released — a contravention of the government’s legislative requirements.

Across 11 weeks from September last year, Abt Associates and technical partner Bdna conducted interviews with state and territory health authorities, along with staff from the Department of Health and the Digital Transformation Agency.

“Our evaluation used a mix-methods and multidisciplinary approach blending perspectives from public health evaluation and technology reviews to examine available quantitative and qualitative evidence on the appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency of the COVIDSafe app and the National COVIDSafe Database,” the report said.

“A high level technology review was undertaken according to the request for quotation which excluded COVIDSafe technological alternatives and recommendations for future innovations.”

Abt Associates was paid $233,668 to produce this report.

All elements of the report relating to the actual evaluation and analysis of the effectiveness of COVIDSafe were redacted by the government, mostly under s47C. This exemption relates to information involving a “deliberative matter”, such as an opinion, advice or recommendation that has been obtained, prepared or recorded.

This exemption is not meant to apply to reports of “scientific or technical experts…including reports expressing the opinions of such experts on scientific or technical matters”.

The government did however leave in parts of the report saying it was a “commendable achievement” that COVIDSafe was developed in a short space of time, and another saying that the right model was chosen for the app.

“As our technology review indicates, based on the parameters of knowledge and capabilities at the time of app launch, it is believed that the COVIDSafe app was the correct tool to employ,” the report said.

The report said that the key measure of success of the app is its “ability to identify individuals who meet the criteria of close contact”.

COVIDSafe has not identified any of these people this year, despite significant outbreaks in New South Wales, Victoria and other areas of the country.

The app is not currently being used at all by NSW health authorities, the only state where it has identified unique close contacts previously.

COVIDSafe has found 17 new close contacts not identified by manual contact tracers in total, while a further 544 people were identified by health authorities after the app found a new exposure time at a NSW venue.

The government paid private contractors nearly $10 million for work on COVIDSafe, while it is still costing $60,000 per month to continue running.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

3 Comments
  1. Richard Nelson 2 months ago
    Reply

    I don’t think this report was written with a full understanding of how the app functions – let alone the nuance of some of the bugs found last year that severely affected its efficacy.

    For example: “To further increase privacy around user identity, an update included functionality to randomly generate a new
    temporary ID (Temp ID) every few minutes and exchange this in the Bluetooth handshakes instead of a user ID.”. The app never exchanged “user IDs”, the concept of TempID always came from Singapore’s TraceTogether.

    Then, “The app’s current business rules allow for recording of digital handshakes when other app users are in close proximity (i.e. within 1.5 meters). However, encounters between two individuals are only logged if during the last 21 days there has been at least one single encounter lasting over 15 minutes”.

    The app itself logs every single exchange, and always did (this was shown by my reverse engineering of the iOS app prior to source code release, and others who reverse engineered the Android version). It has no “business logic” around 15 minutes or 1.5m. This logic is handled server side, and doesn’t make sense as written here.

    These misunderstandings in the extremely limited (redacted) technical detail cast serious doubts as to the overall correctness of this report. The fact that there is no comparison to efficacy as per the peer reviewed article by the NHS in Nature of their Exposure Notification enabled app is very telling.

  2. Digital Koolaid 2 months ago
    Reply

    JANUARY 1965, Clark Abt opens a two-room office situated above a machine shop in West Cambridge (you already guessed that’s Cambridge in the UK). 1966, ABT ASSOCIATES moves to its first designed and owned building at 55 Wheeler Street in Cambridge. 1975, ABT ASSOCIATES Turns 10. 2020, ABT gets paid a lot of money for a review in Australia because it was claimed nobody in this country could possibly do it, but of course we could. 2021, the government refuses to table the report required by legislation and redacts most of the FOI order, demonstrating that freedom of information and the law itself are non-extant in Australia.

    • Les Buckley 2 months ago
      Reply

      See no point of this ineffective app as it has been shown that new strains are transmitted in less than one minute.

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