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Photograph: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

You can now download the government's controversial contact tracing app

It's a key component of the strategy for relaxing social restrictions in Australia

Maxim Boon

The federal government’s controversial contact tracing app launched on Sunday, April 26. Taking its inspiration from a similar app, TraceTogether, developed in Singapore, Australia’s version – dubbed CovidSafe – piggybacks on a smartphone’s bluetooth signal to establish a 'digital handshake' with nearby devices. This logs the people a user has been in close contact with (less than 1.5 metres apart) for more than 15 minutes. If one of those close contacts subsequently tests positive, all those who are deemed at risk of having been exposed are then alerted, so they can seek testing and begin self-isolating. 

The app is a major component of the government’s preparations for a rollback of the stringent social restrictions currently in place across the country. In addition to bolstering health authorities' ability to investigate and trace community transmission via the new app, state governments have also spent recent weeks extensively expanded testing capacities and critical care facilities.

In order for CovidSafe to be effective, 40 per cent of the population will need to download it, and if successful, it's hoped that regulations on retail stores, workplaces and hospitality venues could be eased within weeks. However, while the app has been hailed by federal officials as a key stepping stone towards reversing the country’s drastic economic downturn, its development has also been dogged by concerns over data security and protection of privacy.

The prime minister Scott Morrison and home affairs minister Peter Dutton have both assured the public that the app is not a tracking device and that no commonwealth agency, including the police, will be able to access any of the collected data. To further protect a user's privacy, those who download the app will be required to supply an identifying name, which can be a pseudonym. They will also need to supply their age, mobile number and postcode, but no other biographical or medical details.

The data collected by the app is encrypted and stored on the user's phone for 21 days, after which it is deleted if no contact with a confirmed case is traced. If a user is diagnosed, their data will only be shared with health authorities with their express permission. Downloading the app will be entirely voluntary. 

The app will be available for both iPhone and Android devices from 6pm on Sunday, 26 April.

Still unclear on how the contact tracing app works? Check out this handy FAQs fact sheet.

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