How did the Covidsafe app go from being vital to almost irrelevant?

Guardian Technology 23 May 2020 08:00

It was sold as the key to unlocking restrictions – like sunscreen to protect Australians from Covid-19 – but as the country begins to open up, the role of the Covidsafe app in the recovery seems to have dropped to marginal at best.

“This is an important protection for a Covid-safe Australia,” the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said in late April. “I would liken it to the fact that if you want to go outside when the sun is shining, you have got to put sunscreen on.”

“This is the same thing … If you want to return to a more liberated economy and society, it is important that we get increased numbers of downloads when it comes to the Covidsafe app … This is the ticket to ensuring that we can have eased restrictions.”

The health minister, Greg Hunt, tweeted that it was the key to being allowed to go back to watching football.

Yet nearly a month since launch, the contact tracing app has barely been used – just one person has been reported to have been identified using data from it.

And the language from public officials has been toned down. No longer is it the key to freedoms, but an add-on to existing contact tracing methods, to work in concert with social distancing rules and continued testing to keep a lid on outbreaks.

The big sell

But the government has been selling it as much more than that.

No actual number was tied to the 40% figure, but based on estimations of the number of Australians with smartphones, it is now about 1.5m under that target.

The government’s task was to convince as many people who fall into the last category as possible to sign up.

Legislation soon followed, and the government set out protections for the data far beyond many of the protections for other personal data held by the government.

Australians’ attitudes to the app have been mixed at best. Essential polling earlier this month revealed just over half the population (55%) believed the app would limit the spread of coronavirus, and just under half (48%) believed it would speed up easing of restrictions.

By the second survey, the support for downloading had dropped to 64%.

The other factor, he said, was that lower case numbers meant people felt less at risk of infection and less interested in downloading the app.

This week Victoria became the first state to report using the data after a person who tested positive was using the app and consented to upload their data. The contact tracer found one other person not already deemed a close contact, and called them to get tested and to quarantine until the results came back.

And the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, downplayed issues with the app saying manual contact tracing was key.

“Yes the app is important in speeding up the process, but please know that process happens regardless.”

Where the app has faltered has been in transparency. Developers have reported difficulty communicating with the Digital Transformation Agency about problems.

The government initially denied this, refused to answer questions about it, and only once, before the Covid-19 senate committee, did the agencys chief executive, Randall Brugeaud, admit the Bluetooth function suffered when the app wasn’t on screen.

That, in part, has been addressed by updates quietly released in the past week, but issues still persist, and will never truly be resolved unless the federal government implements functions released by Apple and Google this week.

The Apple-Google API is being evaluated by the government but according to a Melbourne cryptographer, Vanessa Teague, it would require a major overhaul to the app.

Under the Apple and Google version, the data being uploaded is just a set of keys that user has had for the past 21 days. Other users’ phones play a digital game of bingo, checking in with the national server to see if they have a match for a contact in the past 21 days.

Health experts are less in favour of this model because it makes it harder to spot outbreaks and is harder to follow up for close contacts, but privacy advocates insist it is the most secure.

“It wouldn’t look that much different to the users – it would still keep the cute, you know, Anzac Day-themed interface, but they would have to completely rearrange the underlying cryptographic notification mechanism in order to use the API,” Teague said.

That update, and the 21-day timeframe for recording contacts would mean there would be a period where the app would have to run both the old and new version.

“They don’t interoperate at all. Everyone running it would have to run both versions for a few weeks.”

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