Australia looks set to follow Singapore in introducing a “contact tracing” app to track coronavirus victims and the people they come in contact with, in the hope the app could eventually help ease lockdown measures.

The federal government wants to introduce the app within a fortnight, with details to be shared with state premiers at Thursday’s national cabinet meeting. The app will reportedly be based on Singapore’s version, known as TraceTogether, which was rolled out early and hailed as a helpful tool in minimising the spread of COVID-19.

It is unclear exactly which form the government’s app will take but there are already several companies, ranging from local software developers (pictured above) to global tech giants, offering various types of contact tracing software. However, each raise privacy concerns and require enough users to opt in for the system to be effective and help identify coronavirus infections and hotspots.

Australia has so far recorded over 6,400 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 63 resulting deaths.

Contact Tracing 

Contact tracing apps work by sending out “beacons” via bluetooth to detect other phones within range and then logging then results. If the phone user tests positive for COVID-19, the information can be used to alert other people who had been within range of the infected person.

Using bluetooth rather than GPS means the apps can work without directly tracking users’ locations. Beacon results can also be stored on the phone (rather than a server), and users’ beacon IDs can be rotated periodically to minimise identifiable information. 

Results are uploaded to a centralised server when a user consents, following an infection. The server would then send out beacon keys to alert any person who had been within close contact of the infected person within the last 14 days and that they should be tested.

Australian developer Louis Berghold works on the new ConTrace app, now in a working prototype. Supplied.

Last week, Apple and Google announced a rare partnership to co-develop much of the underlying technology for contact tracing apps, including the release of APIs next month that would allow interoperability between the apps across the competing mobile platforms. 

Currently, contact tracing apps typically require users to download a standalone app or for the feature to be included in an existing app, such as the government’s official Coronavirus Australia App, and then opted into. 

But the tech giants plan to build the tracing function into underlying platforms, meaning users would still need to opt in but could avoid downloading additional software.

As the two dominant mobile platforms, that step will be critical if the Australian government is to hit its penetration target of 40 per cent of citizens. In comparison, Singapore’s so far world leading contact tracing app has only been installed by around 20 per cent of the population.

Privacy and civil liberties groups are also concerned about potential mission creep and misuse of such apps.

The Human Rights Law Centre, Digital Rights Watch, Access Now and the Centre for Responsible Technologies last week called for greater transparency around the use of “highly invasive technologies” including contact tracing apps.

“At their core, these technologies are about surveillance and control of our everyday lives,” said Alice Drury, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre. “It is vital that our Government is transparent about how it chooses to use this power, and we need assurance that this intrusion on how we live doesn’t continue unfettered when this pandemic is over.

“We don’t want to emerge from this crisis in a country where the Government has the power to trace the movements and contacts of every single one of us, all of the time.”

Lizzie O’Shea, Chair at Digital Rights Watch argued adoption of technologies to combat COVID-19 requires the community’s trust and confidence and the government must ensure human rights are protected.

“Whether it’s a dedicated app or any other mechanism, reporting and oversight of the operation needs to be transparent, must include a sunset clause, and any information gathered cannot be used for any other purpose,” O’Shea said.

Local options

Yesterday afternoon, the Australian development team behind the Public Transport Information and Priority System – the data platform which feeds public transport systems and apps – announced it now has a working prototype of its contact tracing app, ConTrace.

The development team has been working on the application pro bono and is now seeking funding to ready ConTrace for public release.

The dashboard view of the ConTrace app. Supplied.

According to the ConTrace developers, their app is distinct from the solutions used in Singapore and being developed by Apple and Google because it requires no personal information from users. They say the app has been “designed from the ground up to be totally privacy-protecting and anonymous.”

ConTrace users receive randomly generated identifiers and tracing data never leaves the user’s device. When alerts of contact with an infected person are issued they do not include any information like time or place. 

“People’s fear and distrust about large corporations and governments collecting and misusing our data is understandable, considering the potential surveillance and commercial gains that could be made,” said Jonathan Armstrong, creator of ConTrace. 

“It’s not good enough to provide assurances that personal data will not be misused or hacked – there should be no personal data to misuse, period.”

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