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Coronavirus contact tracing app
Photograph: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

CovidSafe, Australia's contact tracing app: your questions answered

Everything you need to know about this controversial tech

By
Maxim Boon
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Australia is doing a lot better than many countries are right now, but in order to further slow the spread of the disease to a point where we can begin to live again as we once did, one major hurdle must be overcome: community transmission. 

Community transmission is the term when the source of an identified infection cannot be traced back to its origin, and in the countries hardest hit – the US, UK, Spain, Italy and China – untraceable and uncontrolled community transmission has had a devastating impact. To tackle this problem, the federal government has released a new app, CovidSafe, that will be able to notify Australians if they have come into contact with someone infected. However, this unfamiliar technology has raised many concerns about privacy rights, civil liberties and data security.

Here, we take a look at some of the most common questions surrounding the app and what its introduction could mean for Australians.

What does the app do?

The technology is based on digital contact tracing, modelled on a similar app used in Singapore. Essentially, it logs a user’s proximity to other users based on a Bluetooth signal from their phone, by establishing a 'digital handshake' with nearby devices. If someone using the app tests positive, anyone who has been logged as being in close proximity (under 1.5 metres) to the infected person for more than 15 minutes in the previous 14 days will be notified so they can get tested and self-isolate. 

So, it tracks my movements?

Yes and no. While it does register users’ proximity to each other, it does not operate on geo-location; that is to say, it does not log a user’s movements on a map. The app only tracks the relative positions of all users in order to assess the likelihood of community transmission.

Why does the government say we need this app?

While physical distancing, staying at home, and stringent restrictions on everyday life have so far proved useful in reducing the spread of disease in Australia, this is not a sustainable solution. The government hopes that by using this mobile technology, it will be able to shorten the amount of time Australians will have to live with these harsh regulations. However, evidence from Singapore, where similar technology was introduced last month to trace infectious contacts, has been mixed, and while medical experts have said it is a useful containment tool, only a vaccine will be able to totally eradicate the disease in Australia.

Who will have access to my data?

No one, unless you test positive. The data collected by the app is encrypted and kept on the user's phone for 21 days, after which, it is deleted if no positive contact is traced. When a user tests positive, their data can only be used with their express permission. No Commonwealth agencies, including the police, will be able to access your data.

Will I get in trouble for breaking physical distancing regulations?

The government has stated that the app will not log behaviours in this way, and that any data analysed will not be accessible by law enforcement or stored by the authorities. Police still have powers to fine or arrest anyone found to be breaking physical distancing laws. However, using the app will not notify authorities of your specific movements, who you are with at any one time or why you’re there.

Do I have to use the app?

The prime minister has made some confusing comments regarding this in recent days, first saying that downloading the app would be voluntary, then suggesting it could become mandatory, before backtracking, insisting that downloading the app would remain voluntary. At present, the federal government’s position is that it will not be mandatory to use the app. 

Is there any point in using the app if not everyone is on it?

Again, there has been some conflicting information on this. The government has stated that at least 40 per cent of the population will need to be using the app for it to be useful; however, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Nick Coatsworthy, has also said that if as little as 1 per cent of the population use the app, it would be somewhat useful, saying that the app represents “an added layer to the existing tracing methods, to help our disease detectives do their job”.

Do you have more questions about Sydney's current social restrictions? We have the answers you seek.

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