The Australian public can trust the government to build and run a contact tracing app that is secure and preserves privacy, a number of Coalition ministers have argued.
After plans to launch a voluntary COVID-19 contact tracing app within weeks were dropped to the media this week, the government has now begun the difficult task of convincing the public it can be trusted on data security and that it is in their interests to voluntarily download and use the technology.
Few details are available on how the app will work, except that it will be heavily based on the Singapore government’s TraceTogether app.
The Australian app will use Bluetooth technology to record contact someone has within another user within 1.5 metres for at least 15 minutes. A list of these contacts will be stored locally on the device for 21 days.
If a user is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can consent to have a list of their contact information sent to public health authorities, which would then notify those who may be at risk of having contracted the virus.
There are numerous privacy concerns about the use of the app, and a series of government ministers moved to address these concerns and to assure the public the service can be trusted.
The government was in the “final stages” of a Privacy Impact Assessment on the app and is also receiving cybersecurity advice from the Australian Cyber Security Centre, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said.
“We’re not working with Apple and Google. We’re not tracking, and we’re not doing any surveillance at all,” Mr Robert told 5AA radio on Thursday.
“We currently, if someone contracts the coronavirus or COVID-19 virus, we go through a manual tracing process to ask them who have they been close to, so we can contact them to see if they’ve got any symptoms and encourage them to get tested,” he said.
“All we are now we are going to do is to digitise that tracing capacity, very similar to what Singapore has done. That is the intent of it.”
“We would like a whole bunch of Australians, as many as possible, to download it knowing full well that the strongest privacy is involved, the strongest security, no-one can see any numbers, and all it is doing is replicating a manual tracing process,” Mr Robert said.
The government can be trusted to ensure the app is privacy protecting and secure, according to Industry Minister Karen Andrews said.
“We want to reassure the people of Australia that the data that we collect will be used appropriately and they should have little to no concerns about what will happen to that data. And that will be a clear part of what our strategy is going to be,” Ms Andrews.
“I understand people’s concerns about privacy. So that’s clearly one of the issues that we’re looking at. It’s well advanced but it is a work in progress.”
The app would have “clear safeguards” baked into it, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said.
“It is something that is a potential tool open to the Australian government and the Australian people. But a decision would only be taken if the government was satisfied as to the privacy safeguards and as to there being community understanding and support as to the benefits this tool could provide and the basis upon which people could use it,” Mr Fletcher said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the app would “massively help our health authorities”.
“We’ve got to work through some technical and some privacy issues and some things like that. So we’re not doing it in haste. You wouldn’t be mandatorily required to sign up to these apps. That’s not how Australia works,” Mr Morrison said.
“There are things that we might not ordinarily do. But in these circumstances, to keep people safe, to save lives and to save people’s livelihoods and get them back to work. If that tool is going to help people do that, then this may be one of the sacrifices we need to make. We’re working on the privacy issues very hard.”
A number of privacy and civil liberties advocates have raised concern with the security of such an app and its effectiveness in combating the spread of COVID-19.
Digital Rights Watch chair Lizzie O’Shea said the service will “fail” unless the government is fully transparent about its operations and is independently audited.
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