Australia’s contact-tracing app pits privacy concerns against coronavirus containment

Countries are racing to develop apps that can track the spread of Covid-19 and provide a route towards reopening economies

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 26: In this photo illustration, the Australian government coronavirus (COVID-19) tracking app 'COVIDSafe' is seen on April 26, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. The Australian government application will create a bluetooth connection between two phones with the application installed, log the interaction, and help the government identify potential COVID-19 cases. Critics are concerned about personal privacy, and the app requires uptake of just under half the population to be successful. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Australia’s new coronavirus tracker has joined a growing list of apps set up to halt the spread of the new coronavirus and hasten a return to normal life. But like other contract-tracing apps, including one due to be launched in France next month, it has prompted privacy concerns.

The Australian government’s COVIDSafe app logs Bluetooth connections between phones in close proximity for more than 15 minutes, enabling authorities to trace potential infections when a person has come into contact with a positive diagnosis.

“We need the COVIDSafe app as part of the plan to save lives and save livelihoods,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement. “The more people who download this important public health app, the safer they and their family will be, the safer their community will be and the sooner we can safely lift restrictions and get back to business and do the things we love.”

The government has issued assurances that new laws will limit the use of information gathered and prevent its use by non-health officials.

"It will be illegal for information to go out of that data store to any other person other than that for whom the whole thing is designed, and that is to support the health worker in the state to be able to undertake the contact tracing," Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

Three men arrested after breaching Australia's coronavirus lockdown

Three men arrested after breaching Australia's coronavirus lockdown

He said data would be stored on a server manned by AWS, which is a unit of Amazon, adding that "it's a nationally encrypted data store."

If an app user tests positive, they can consent for their phone log to be uploaded to the government server and accessed by health officials, who will then contact people at risk so they can get tested.

The app is voluntary to download and will only work if just under half the population has it on their phones. But responses have been mixed from a public wary of relinquishing private data.

A survey of about 1,000 people conducted last week by the Australian Institute showed 45 per cent of respondents were willing to use the app while 28 per cent said they wouldn’t.

Rights advocates have raised concerns over the extent of government surveillance afforded by COVIDSafe and gaps in its safeguards to protect private information.

A statement released on Sunday by the Human Rights Law Centre, Digital Rights Watch and the Australia Institute said, “the tracing app will only be effective if enough Australians feel confident downloading and using it.

“Critical will be legally enforceable safeguards on the collection, storage, sharing and disposal of any personal information that is generated from the app, and a clear end date for when the tracing will stop and the data will be deleted.”

Australia has maintained a relatively low caseload, with 6,711 reported infections and 83 deaths from the disease, thanks largely to strict social distancing measures. These will only be relaxed when widespread testing and contact tracing through the app gives authorities the confidence to reopen Australia’s economy.


Several Gulf countries are also developing digital platforms to monitor the spread of the virus, including Bahrain, where a contact tracing app called Be Aware alerts users who have come into contact with someone that tested positive for the virus.

Those required to self-isolate wear electronic bracelets, which notify a government monitoring station when they are 15 metres away from their phone.

In Saudi Arabia, Health Ministry spokesman Mohammad Al Abdulaali said an app used by 600,000 people to help identify suspected cases has indicated that there could be another 15,000 coronavirus cases in the kingdom. Currently the caseload is 16,299.

In Israel, 203 people, including some identified through mobile phone location data, have been arrested for violating quarantine. The use of this data was approved by the Israeli government for a limited period but earlier this week a parliamentary oversight group blocked an attempt to extend the emergency measures.

The battle lines in Europe have been drawn as governments in the UK, France and Germany wrestle with Apple and Google over the level of privacy afforded to app users. The tech giants have teamed up to build technology that enables digital contact tracing apps but with strict limits on the type of data that can be shared with public health authorities.

France has since asked Apple to lift the privacy restrictions.

Last week, a letter signed by a group of 300 academics from 26 countries worldwide cautioned against using contact-tracing at the expense of privacy protection. “Such apps can otherwise be repurposed to enable unwarranted discrimination and surveillance,” the letter said.

“It is vital that, in coming out of the current crisis, we do not create a tool that enables large-scale data collection on the population, either now or at a later time.”