The Senate committee investigating the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will turn its attention to the controversial contact tracing app this week.
The Labor-led Select Committee on COVID-19 will hold a public hearing on Wednesday with a focus on COVIDSafe, the federal government’s official coronavirus contact tracing app.
Department of Health and Digital Transformation Agency officials are expected to be questioned on the issues and controversies surrounding the contact tracing app, which uses Bluetooth technology to record close contacts between users and can send this information to state and territory health authorities if a user is diagnosed with the virus.
Labor is understood to be planning to question the officials on the timing of the app’s release, functionality issues on iOS devices, what the 40 per cent target usage number is based on, and the inability for many backpackers and international visitors to use the service
The app has now been downloaded more than 4 million times since it was launched two weeks ago, with the federal government saying its uptake is a key deciding factor in whether social restrictions can be eased in the coming weeks.
Labor Senators are expected to question why COVIDSafe is currently only available on the Australian Android and iOS app stores, meaning many backpackers, other tourists and international students cannot use it.
COVIDSafe can currently only be downloaded from the Australian iOS and Android app stores and requires an Australian mobile number to register with the service.
This means that anyone with an Apple or Android account from overseas, or with an international number roaming in Australia, cannot use the service.
This is done to prevent people living in other countries from using the app but also restricts it from many people in Australia too. The DTA said it is “exploring” options to make the app accessible to more people within Australia.
Other countries have also encountered this problem. Singapore’s TraceTogether app was later launched in the US and UK app stores, among others, after the issue was raised. A Singapore mobile number is still required to use the app though, with the government saying this is being reviewed.
The requirement to have an SMS authentication has also led to issues with people living in rural and remote areas relying on WiFi, with calls to allow the use of landline numbers when registering.
The hearing will also look into the privacy protections and legal safeguards surrounding the app, which are currently enforced through a determination under the Biosecurity Act. The Coalition will be legislating the safeguards in Parliament next week.
The committee is also expected to investigate issues around the timing of the release of the app, following revelations over the weekend that the final privacy rules and tech tests are still being worked through with the states and territories, meaning the app is not yet functional. The government has said the app will be working fully by the end of the week ahead of a decision on easing restrictions.
“What we’re doing is making sure that the operations are going to work appropriately and safely, but also that the people in the contact tracing facilities in the states and territories are trained on how to use the app, and how to use it appropriately,” deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd said on Friday.
While the system to send data from the national store to the states and territories isn’t operational, contact information between users is still being stored.
The app’s effectiveness on Apple devices has also been questioned, with this issue likely to be raised during the senate public hearing. Several countries have encountered issues with contact tracing on iPhones due to Apple’s rules around the use of Bluetooth by apps running in the background of devices.
Singapore’s TraceTogether app, upon which COVIDSafe is based, works effectively when an iPhone is unlocked and actively running the app, officials have said.
While initially saying that they had overcome this issue, the Australian government has since admitted that there are issues with the app recording Bluetooth “handshakes” between users when it is running in the background.
“When an app is running in the background on an iphone, there are limitations to Bluetooth functionality due to an iPhone’s design to preserve battery. When a phone is running in the background, there may be some variability in the digital handshakes on iOS devices,” a DTA spokesperson said late last week.
“Apple and Google have announced they are working to enhance contact tracing capability. The government will work with Apple and Google to investigate whether we can leverage their capability to enhance the performance of COVIDSafe. The app works best when it is operating in the foreground.”
Whether the Australian government will be able to incorporate the Apple and Google API for contact tracing when it is available, which would overcome the iOS issues, is also likely to be raised during the hearing.
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick last week told InnovationAus he had put forward questions to the committee to ask at the hearing around the contract handed to Amazon Web Services for cloud storage of the app’s national data store for confirmed cases, and other contracts awarded to private companies to work on it, including Boston Consulting Group.
The Select Committee on COVID-19 is chaired by Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, with Liberal Senator James Paterson serving as deputy chair. It features three Labor Senators, two Coalition Senators, one Greens Senator and independent Senator Jacqui Lambie.