The COVIDSafe app is not the enemy — the virus is

Coronavirus app privacy

The coronavirus tracing app has been downloaded more than 5 million times, while privacy concerns remain. Independent telecommunications expert, Gary McLaren, argues that although the privacy concerns are valid, the marketing of the app should focus on the positives and not coercion by a government still struggling with trust.

To be effective, the COVIDSafe app will have to be downloaded by at least 40% of the population; meaning at least 10 million of us must be using it for it to deliver its promise of saving lives and enabling a safer re-opening of communities and the economy.

The Government has a hard hill to climb to reach this goal and while government ministers may be calling for a “Team Australia” moment, many Australians will ask whether the Government is really on their side.

The Australian Government has some of the most extraordinary powers of surveillance in the Western world. Australia is unique in having laws that require technology companies (e.g. Facebook, Google and telcos) operating in Australia to provide encrypted personal information to government authorities without any judicial oversight (e.g. warrants).

Recent police raids on the offices and homes of journalists who have uncovered information that did nothing more than embarrass the Government, have made headlines.

Police raids and prosecution of whistleblower David McBride spark global condemnation

Citizens are rightly questioning whether the Government, who is seeking them to be part of the team, is actually on their side.

But the benefits of the coronavirus contact tracing app in helping the country’s exit from the Great Lockdown are clear. It sits crucially between the necessary testing regime (where Australia has been a world leader) and the need to isolate individuals who are exposed to the virus. An efficient contact tracing regime will be critical in avoiding the need for multiple lockdowns over the next months and (perhaps) years.

However, the app will only really be useful in situations where people are mixing in proximity to people outside of their immediate social circles. The app reportedly only logs contacts for people being within 1.5m for a total of 15 minutes. Situations where this does not involve immediate families and friends will mainly be public venues and facilities such as sporting grounds, restaurants, cafes and public transport.

As a result, the app should be extended beyond its current scope to include the ability for it to act as a “ticket” for Australians to start resuming a normal life without social distancing. Venues and facilities where social distancing is impossible could make it a condition of entry that patrons have the app installed and activated. A quick, secure method for checking a phone’s COVID tracking status should be included in the design.

Many such venues and facilities will struggle to re-open their businesses if the public is unsure of the ability of the health system to cope with new outbreaks. Venues can decide to make the app a condition of entry to help build confidence and entice more of the public to download and use the app.

Such an approach could benefit the Government in reaching and exceeding its goal of 40% take-up. A positive “sales pitch” is always much stronger than relying on some nebulous concepts of “Team Australia”.

The Australian Government has a tough sell with the coronavirus contact tracing app. Its recent track record of increasing surveillance powers sits uncomfortably with its notion of invoking “Team Australia”.

Better to enlist the help of all those businesses who are looking to reopen their businesses that are currently impacted by social distancing.


Australia now a surveillance state with journalists as Persons of Interest under ASIO Act

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