Government in hard sell on tracing app

The federal government has begun its hard sell of its coronavirus tracing app, with government services minister Stuart Robert spruiking the software as the way to “get back to the footy and back to the beach and back to seeing the grandkids …”

His multimedia publicity blitz sought to allay concerns that users of the app would get into trouble if they contravened social-distancing strictures.

“It’s not about seeing where you are or surveilling (sic) or tracking, it’s none of that. All it does is say you’re (within) 1.5 metres of another person for 15 minutes, the apps will swap phone numbers, and if you’re then tested positive health authorities can connect with those people that are connected with you,” Mr Robert told 5AA radio.

He said the roll-out of the app is a “core part” of loosening coronavirus social restrictions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said easing restrictions depends on widespread COVID-19 testing, increased surveillance of people infected by coronavirus and faster tracing of people they have contacted.

Nationals MP and former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and deputy speaker Llew O’Brien have said they will not use the app.

“I treasure the government knowing as little about me as possible,” Mr Joyce told Nine newspapers.

Mr O’Brien said there was a “snowflake’s chance in hell” he would use the app.

“It is way too Big-Brotherish for me,” he told News Corp Australia newspapers.

Bernard Robertson-Dunn, the Australian Privacy Foundation Health Committee chair, told SBS News the “devil would be in the detail” of the app and wanted more information about the project made public.

On Monday, the government-funded Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, said it had no major privacy concerns about the app.

“I’m pleased with what I’ve seen to date,” the centre’s chief executive officer, Rachael Falk, told Nine News. “There’s very little private data obtained.”

“There’s not much there that is concerning,” Ms Falk said. “If it’s not shared with anyone other than local health authorities and it’s being shared in a way that’s transparent with the public, I personally will download [it].”

“I’m confident with the type of data that’s being taken. It’s not a big data set that’s particularly personal,” she said.

The Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre examined the app with the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate.

The app is based on the Singaporean TraceTogether app, which had an uptake of 20 per cent of its population. The government estimates 40 per cent of Australians would need to take up its app to make it effective.

Epidemiologist Marion Kaine told the ABC “the advantage of having an app like this [is] it allows the contact tracing to occur much more rapidly”.

The app has been described as a “proximity detector”, triggered when people are within 1.5 metres of each other for more than 15 minutes.

Devices with the app swap an encrypted package containing the mobile number, name, age range and postcode of the person.

“If I was confirmed positive, my data goes up to a central data store, only to state health officials, no-one else, and then they could rapidly call anyone I had been in close contact with,” Mr Robert said.

“It’s not used by the Commonwealth for any purpose at all. It’s only there for state health to use it. The government won’t have information on you. No-one’s got access to your data, no-one’s tracking you, there’s no surveillance.”

He also said the app was being designed to make sure it wasn’t a “heavy draw” on phone batteries.

Bernard Robertson-Dunn, the Australian Privacy Foundation Health Committee chair, told SBS News the “devil would be in the detail” of the app. “If there are benefits to the people and the country at large, people may make that trade-off for privacy, but without those benefits clearly spelt out, it’s difficult to know whether you want to make that trade-off.”

Graham Greenleaf, a professor of law and information systems at UNSW Law is seeking “appropriate legal guarantees” when the app is implemented.

“‘Use it or stay home’ is not the same as ‘voluntary’.”

He says employers might insist that employees returning to work have the app installed on their phone, in order to protect co-workers or customers.

“Universities and schools might do likewise as a condition of attendance. Public events, and even restaurants, might make it a condition of entry. Those who don’t like it would be told they can stay home.”

He says to address such ‘pseudo-voluntary’ compliance dangers, legislation is required by federal, state and territory jurisdictions.

“It should guarantee that the app is voluntary: no-one can be required to install it, turn it on (in an OS), or keep it on; anyone can delete both app and data at any time; and no-one can require a person to demonstrate that they are running it on their phone.

Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said his country’s app would be ready to download in three to four weeks.

The BBC reports that European Union member states are cautious about developing tracking technology, after warnings from the EU executive.

Mr Spahn said that German app developers were working to make privacy tools “as perfect as possible”.

This means it will be “more like three to four weeks rather than two weeks” before the app is released. Germany says using its app will be voluntary.

Are you going to use the government’s tracking app?

Are you convinced the app is safe and your privacy will not be compromised?

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