Australian government insiders and technology industry players have raised alarms about the government’s new COVID-19 tracing app released last night, after a contract for its data storage was given to the US retail giant Amazon. Bureaucrats inside the government’s Digital Transformation Agency voiced concerns about awarding the contract to an overseas provider when several Australian-owned storage services had been security vetted for high-security uses.
The government is saying that an uptake of 40% downloads by Australians is necessary for the app to provide useful data for tracing possible COVID-19 outbreaks. As of last night, it is reported that more than one million Aussies have downloaded the app, despite serious questions by several Coalition and Labor parliamentarians about data and privacy concerns. The government claims the app data can only be used by federal health authorities, and is totally secure.
The app requires Bluetooth access to the smartphone, and must remain active all the time. Once the app is opened, it will seek out other phones that have the app installed. Each time your phone senses another phone running the app, and you are within 1.5 meters of the other person, your phone keeps a record of that contact. The phone uses Google Maps to record the location of the contact, encrypts and stores the information on your phone and passes it to the Amazon server. As the user of the app, you cannot see that information. If you are tested positive for COVID-19, the State Health department will ask if you have the app, and will download the tracing data to determine if any of your contacts may have contaminated you, or you have contaminated others. The justification for the app is that it will save health workers many man hours of manual labor collecting contamination data.
In 2018, the federal government launched the My Health Record system, where GPs, hospitals, and other medical practitioners had their computers linked to the My Health Record system. Every time a person had any form of medical treatment, the record of that treatment would be captured. Many people immediately opted out of this system, as the government automatically had everyone as opted in on launch. Concerns were raised that the data was accessible to several government departments, agencies, and the police, and was vulnerable to hacking. People simply did not trust the government’s claims that their personal information was secure and would not be misused.
With the launch of COVIDSafe, people have similar concerns about the potential misuse of their movements data. Historical episodes have demonstrated that no government organ or agency, whether federal or state, can be trusted with personal information, and the growing desire by all governments everywhere to gain access to more and more information about individuals, their movements, spending patterns, medical histories, Internet access, and personal details. Claiming that any move to gain personal data is for the ‘greater good of all’, is a tired cliche by autocratic bureaucracies to expand their control over a country’s citizens.
The Australian infection curve has fallen sharply in all states, and in some states is zero, the need for a tracing app such as COVIDSafe, even if totally secure, has long passed, and Australians do not need an additional layer of movement monitoring by a growing autocratic government.