The contentious COVIDSafe app, downloaded by four million Australians, is not yet being used by health officials.
“The rules on privacy are being finalised, along with final IT testing,” a Department of Health spokesman told the ABC on Sunday.
“The system will be operational next week ahead of the decision on possible easing of restrictions.”
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Michael Kidd said the app had been implemented very quickly and was still being finalised.
“What we’re doing is making sure that the operations are going to work appropriately and safely, but also (making) sure that the people in the contact-tracing facilities in the states and territories are trained on how to use the app, and how to use it appropriately.”
Prof. Kidd said the app was currently logging contacts, but that information was not yet being accessed by officials.
“There’s a delay from now until when the contact tracer in the state or territory where you are based has activated the system.”
He emphasised the app would be gathering relevant details of contacts of users.
Meanwhile, Diabetes Australia has advised the Department of Health that the COVIDSafe app might affect a crucial app downloaded by many diabetics. On Sunday, it released a statement: “***Important information for CGM Users***
“No need to panic!
“We have received reports from a number of people with diabetes who have downloaded the Australian government COVIDSafe app to their smartphone that they have experienced connection problems with their continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) apps.
“We have advised the Department of Health that there may be an issue.
“If you have downloaded the COVIDSafe app and use a smartphone app with your CGM, you may wish to closely monitor to see if you have any connectivity issues. If you are worried, you should temporarily uninstall the COVIDSafe app from your phone.
If you have experienced any issues since downloading the COVIDSafe app, please let us know.”
A spokesman for health minister Greg Hunt told the ABC that the issue with the diabetes app was being investigated by the Department of Health and the Digital Transformation Agency.
Prof. Kidd said the CGM app should remain the “number one priority” for anyone who experiences a “clash” with the COVIDSafe app.
“While we sort out between the two different apps, whether there is any clash, it’s most important that people are managing their diabetes, and doing so safely.”
He remains enthusiastic about the take-up of COVIDSafe.
“We need as many people as possible to download the app … having four million people who have already downloaded in six days provides a fantastic baseline for us to start working from,” Prof. Kidd said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison linked the uptake of the app to the timing of social distancing restrictions being eased. Privacy concerns and battery issues with Apple iPhones dominated discussion of the app last week, yet 3.5 million people uploaded the app within five days of its launch.
The chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy also said a greater uptake might help to relieve restrictions sooner.
“The more we have signed up, the more confidence I’ll be able to give national cabinet that they can make a decision,” Prof. Murphy said. “The more confidence they can have, the more bold they might be,” he told The Guardian.
The sloppy roll-out of the app has fuelled the concerns of non-profit digital rights advocates Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA).
“The federal government has a woeful track record of tech and data privacy disasters including My Health Record, Census Fail, Robo-debt, the Data Retention scheme and myGov crashing just when Australians needed it most.”
The EFA listed concerns about whether the data will be accessible by the United States; whether those at risk of domestic violence are more vulnerable to hacking; ‘function creep’, where information collected by the app for contact tracing could be used for other purposes; data matching with other government-held data sets; consent issues with child users; user access to collected information; and the qualifications of officials analysing the data. “Protection of the data is reliant on multiple levels of government maintaining sufficient oversight of use of that data and any backups made of the data, which traditionally we know has been problematic with a lack of adequate protections,” the statement read.
“Similar to the promises made by the federal government when the data retention scheme was introduced, the assurances given at that time have proven to be flawed and multiple agencies who do not qualify as eligible to access that data are still obtaining it through back door means by way of requests made through eligible agencies.”
Opponents of contact tracing also suggest that contact tracing apps can provide a “false sense of security to justify reopening local and national economies well before it is safe to do so”.
However, the same critics concede that tracing apps can be an important component of an epidemic response when the prevalence of infection is comparatively low, as is the case currently in Australia.
“Such efforts are most effective where testing is rapid and widely available and when infections are relatively rare.”
Independent privacy adviser Stephen Wilson told watoday.com.au that he would normally be “among the first to join the barricades” opposing COVIDSafe.
He agrees the government “has long tended to put national security ahead of privacy and has a poor track record of technology deployments”.
“But it saddens me to see respected privacy advocates rehashing entrenched positions at a time like this. There’s very little wrong with the app itself, but people resent it because they resent the government. Yet I don’t see how we can afford that luxury right now.
“Frankly, academic reference to ‘privacy risks’ right now makes me a bit sick. Where is the proportionality? With people dying in unfathomable numbers elsewhere, we have a good chance to contain community transmission and save lives with better informed contact tracing.”
Have you downloaded COVIDSafe? Are you a diabetic who has experienced issues because of COVIDSafe?
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