Australia rolls out COVID-19 tracking app with privacy concerns

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 26: In this photo illustration, the new COVIDSafe app as seen on an Iphone on the day the Australian Government released it to the public as a way of speeding up contacting people exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19) on April 26, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Tough restrictions on movement and gatherings implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19 remain in place despite a steady decline in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia. All non-essential businesses remain closed or are restricted in operation, while public gatherings are limited to two people and social distancing measures require people to keep a safe 1.5m distance from one another. New South Wales and Victoria have enacted additional lockdown measures to allow police the power to fine people who breach the two-person outdoor gathering limit or leave their homes without a reasonable excuse. Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have all closed their borders to non-essential travellers and international arrivals into Australia are being sent to mandatory quarantine in hotels for 14 days. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 26: In this photo illustration, the new COVIDSafe app as seen on an Iphone on the day the Australian Government released it to the public as a way of speeding up contacting people exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19) on April 26, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Tough restrictions on movement and gatherings implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19 remain in place despite a steady decline in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia. All non-essential businesses remain closed or are restricted in operation, while public gatherings are limited to two people and social distancing measures require people to keep a safe 1.5m distance from one another. New South Wales and Victoria have enacted additional lockdown measures to allow police the power to fine people who breach the two-person outdoor gathering limit or leave their homes without a reasonable excuse. Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have all closed their borders to non-essential travellers and international arrivals into Australia are being sent to mandatory quarantine in hotels for 14 days. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
·Associate Editor

COVID-19 contact tracing apps are arriving in earnest, and it’s clear that privacy is as much of an issue as the effectiveness of the apps. Australia has launched its tracing app, COVIDSafe, despite criticisms of its approach to privacy. The voluntary software is based on Singapore’s TraceTogether and uses a mix of Bluetooth and stored contact data on both the app and servers to let people know if they’ve been in close contact people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. The Australian government has promised that its app doesn’t collect locations and only shares data with health officials after an infected person offers consent, but there are concerns it might still share more than users are comfortable with.

The storage of contact data (including names, phone numbers and postcodes) beyond a device makes it theoretically possible to abuse that info, or for an intruder to access it. There’s also the question of how Australia will enforce its data protections. A legislative directive to enshrine those limitations is only due to be proposed in May. The government has also vowed to delete information on its end when the pandemic is over, but that’s not completely reassuring when there isn’t a clear end in sight.

Germany, meanwhile, is going in the opposite direction. The country has ditched its centralized approach to COVID-19 tracking, based on Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), in favor of a “decentralized architecture” that only stores contact data on devices. This more closely resembles the approach Apple and Google will take when their beta tracing tools arrive in the next few days. It’s not clear when Germany’s app will be ready.

Contact tracing apps like COVIDSafe could prove vital to ending lockdowns by making it easier to track the spread (and hopefully, decline) of the virus as public life resumes. Rather than shutting down most of society, officials could limit closures and stay-home orders to specific businesses and people. The challenge is getting enough adoption for the apps to be effective. Australia, for instance, wants at least 40 percent of the population to enlist. That’s a massive amount for any app, and privacy reassurances might be crucial for reaching that target.