Contact tracing pivotal: WHO

Privacy advocates have raised new concerns about COVIDSafe, the federal government’s coronavirus tracing app, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns countries of the dangers of failing to have effective virus tracing.

There were 5.5 million downloads of the app by Monday afternoon – well short of the government’s target of 40 per cent of the adult population – with civil liberties groups lobbying for a design change to ensure personal data is not stored on a central database. They argue that increases the danger of a single cyber attack.

But the need to find consensus and overcome these difficulties is acute, according to WHO.

WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan has warned countries they cannot afford to “drive blind” by reopening their economies without first establishing strong contact tracing to contain COVID-19 spot fires.

He said that robust measures adopted by Germany and South Korea offered hope that those countries could detect and stop virus clusters before they spread out of control. But he said the same was not true of other countries exiting their lockdowns.

“Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I’ve seen,” Dr Ryan said. “And I’m really concerned that certain countries are setting themselves up for some seriously blind driving over the next few months.

“If the disease persists at a low level without the possibility to investigate clusters, there’s always the possibility that the virus takes off again.”

France and Belgium are emerging from lockdowns, the Netherlands has sent children back to school, and a number of US states are lifting business restrictions. Britain is recruiting 18,000 people to track contacts while developing contact-tracing a mobile phone app.

In New York, the governor has set a mandate of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents for areas to be permitted to reopen.

In Germany, where new virus clusters have been linked to three slaughterhouses, authorities have spelt out a specific level of infection that would lead to the reinstating of restrictions in local areas. Other countries, including US states, have not set specific targets.

WHO warns that the infection rate could spike again without widespread testing and contact tracing.

The Councils for Civil Liberties in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia have issued a joint statement supporting the need for contact tracing but seeking stronger safeguards.

“More needs to be done to ensure that the app does not compromise data protection and thereby increase the risk of illegal and inappropriate use of data or surveillance of Australians,” they said.

“It is also disappointing that the government has opted for centralised data storage in a national COVIDSafe data store rather than adopting the widely supported and more privacy-friendly decentralised option.

“Cyber attacks and accidental and illegal data breaches will continue to occur on Australian government databases. This storage choice creates a real risk of such breaches and will undermine users’ confidence as to the safety of their private data.”

Download COVIDSafe from the Apple App Store (iPhone) or the Google Play Store (Android). Search for COVIDSafe. If you don’t have an iPhone, your phone is most likely an Android.

Have you downloaded the COVIDSafe app? Do you have privacy concerns or do you believe the need for widespread uptake of the app outweighs those concerns?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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