Govt report on COVIDSafe app long overdue

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

A six-monthly report required by legislation on the effectiveness of COVIDSafe has still not been completed by the government, despite the contact tracing app launching more than a year ago, and is not expected to be released for at least another month.

COVIDSafe was launched in April last year, using Bluetooth technology to theoretically log ‘close contacts’ between users, and send this information to state and territory health authorities if a user was diagnosed with COVID-19. In the year since it was launched, the app has only unearthed 17 new close contacts, all of which were in New South Wales.

The government has paid private contractors nearly $10 million for the development of COVIDSafe, and recently revealed that it will cost $100,000 per month to continue running, with a further $200,000 per month set aside for any necessary further changes.

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A six monthly report on the effectiveness of COVIDSafe still hasn’t been produced by the govt

As part of legislation passed to underpin privacy protections around COVIDSafe, the Health minister is required to produce a report on the operation and effectiveness of the app and national database every six months and to table these in Parliament within 15 sitting days after it has been completed.

The legislation outlined how these reports must be prepared “as soon as practicable after the end of each six-month period” from the launch of the app, and must be tabled in Parliament within 15 sitting days after it has been finished.

“This is designed to ensure an appropriate degree of transparency and to build public confidence in the strong privacy protections that will apply under the bill,” the legislation said.

But no report on COVIDSafe has been tabled in Parliament by the government more than a year later, despite two reports now being due.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the first six-monthly report on the operation and effectiveness of COVIDSafe will likely be tabled in Parliament during the winter sitting period, meaning it won’t be revealed publicly until June at the earliest.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is also required by law to produce six-monthly reports on COVIDSafe, and released the first of these reports in late November last year.

The Department of Health said that 7.39 million people have downloaded and registered COVIDSafe, with 774 of these users having contracted COVID-19 and consented to have their data uploaded.

This has led to 2825 close contacts being identified, the Department said. But only 17 of these contacts were not previously identified by manual contact tracers and deemed to be legitimate. All of these cases were in New South Wales, and none have been identified this year.

The Opposition has slammed the federal government over the performance and effectiveness of COVIDSafe to mark the app’s first birthday.

“Their app is a turkey,” shadow government services minister Bill Shorten said.

“When is the government going to stop throwing good money after bad on an app that has tracked only 17 COVID cases, at a cost of almost $1 million a case? You’d be better off using a lucky rabbit’s foot to fight the virus.”

The Health Department commissioned a follow-up Privacy Impact Assessment on COVIDSafe, which was produced by Maddocks and released publicly at the end of March.

The report called on the government to “consider alternative models and technologies”, hinting at the ongoing debate over whether Australia should adopt the Google and Apple framework for digital contact tracing.

“[The department should] assess whether the app can and should be further updated or changed to ensure that users have the best possible privacy protections available given Australia’s legislative framework,” the Privacy Impact Assessment said.

“Health should continue to carefully consider and review the privacy impacts of further development of the app and any changes to any of the information flows discussed in the original COVIDSafe Privacy Impact Assessment report.”

Maddocks said that its report would likely inform the government’s own report on COVIDSafe which it was required by legislation to have completed several months ago.

“It is expected that the Minister’s report may be informed by the findings and recommendations in this Privacy Impact Assessment update report, and Health’s responses to those recommendations,” Maddocks said in the report.

In response, the Health Department said it would continue to work with the Digital Transformation Agency to “monitor alternative models and technologies” relevant to COVIDSafe.

“Noting the strong privacy protections already in place for COVID app data, any alternative technologies or models that offer enhanced privacy protections may be considered for incorporation in the app so long as they continue to support contact tracing by the jurisdictions,” the Department said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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