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Should you download the COVIDSafe app? Pros and cons

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COVIDSafe application on Android

The COVIDSafe app is a new voluntary phone application from the Australian government. It aims to slow the spread of coronavirus by tracing human contact via Bluetooth. But what about your privacy? Here's what you need to know.

What is the COVIDSafe app?

The COVIDSafe app is a contact tracing application created by the Australian Department of Health and Digital Transformation Agency. The chief aim of the app is to help state and territory health officials quickly reach people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Early contact is essential in fighting coronavirus as many people are asymptomatic (producing or showing no symptoms). This means they could be spreading the virus without even realising it. As the government explains on its COVIDSafe app page:

"The COVIDSafe app speeds up the current manual process of finding people who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19. This means you'll be contacted more quickly if you are at risk. This reduces the chances of you passing on the virus to your family, friends and other people in the community."

How does the COVIDSafe app work?

COVIDSafe tracks your device's proximity to other users via Bluetooth. It keeps an information log of every COVIDSafe user you come into close contact with, including the date, time, distance and duration of the contact. (The app also has precise location access, but this data is not collected.)

A "close contact" is recorded at approximately 1.5 metres, for a period of 15 minutes or more. This information is encrypted and stored on your phone for 21 days, which is the average incubation period of COVID-19.

When someone is diagnosed with the virus, health officials can use the app to alert anyone who came into close contact with that person, ensuring they self-isolate and get tested as soon as possible.

This is a faster and more reliable process than the existing tracing method, which relies on the memory and truthfulness of the infected person. It was previously impossible for health officials to directly contact people who may have been infected by a confirmed carrier, so the COVIDSafe app solves this problem.

Finder's Coronavirus Information Hub

What are the benefits of the app?

As explained above, the COVIDSafe app speeds up contacting people exposed to coronavirus. It ensures potential COVID-19 carriers are identified and effectively traced.

In addition to minimising the virus's spread and protecting vulnerable people in the community, the app has the potential to ease work and travel restrictions more quickly. However, this will require a take-up rate of at least 40% of the population.

"In [World War 2], people bought war bonds to get in behind the national effort," prime minister Scott Morrison explained at a press conference. "What we're doing in fighting this fight is we'll be asking people to download an app which helps us trace the virus quickly and the more people who do that, the more we can get back to a more liveable set of arrangements."

Is the COVIDSafe app a compulsory download?

No. Initially, the Australian government did not rule out making the app mandatory. It has since walked back these statements. Downloading the app is entirely voluntary.

How to use the COVIDSafe app

The COVIDSafe app is available from Google Play and the Apple App Store. It requires a Bluetooth-equipped Android or iOS device to function. The minimum requirements are Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) and iOS 10 for Android and iPhone, respectively.

To register the app, you need to enter your name, mobile number, postcode and age range. This information is stored on the app and won't be shared with others. You also need to keep Bluetooth switched on.

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Once the app is up and running, you don't need to do anything else. Provided Bluetooth is on, the app will automatically collect the aforementioned data. State and territory health officials will contact you if you've been exposed to the virus by someone you've been in close contact with.

Extra features

The COVIDSafe app has been designed for a singular purpose. It therefore keeps the extra tools and features to a minimum. The app has an inbuilt FAQ page, a link to the previous coronavirus app and a list of government announcements and updates.

The most useful extra feature by far is the "Share COVIDSafe" button. This allows you to send invites to your phone contacts, encouraging them to download the app. The app will then send the following message via SMS:

Join me in stopping the spread of COVID-19! Download COVIDSafe, an app from the Australian Government. #COVID19
#coronavirusaustralia #stayhomesavelives https://covidsafe.gov.au

App permissions

Downloading the COVIDSafe app grants it access to the following permissions on Android:

  • Precise location (GPS and network-based)
  • Run at startup
  • Full network access
  • View network connections
  • Access Bluetooth settings
  • Pair with Bluetooth devices

Apple does not publicly divulge permissions in iOS but they are likely to be identical.

Should you be concerned about privacy?

Other than apathy, this is the chief roadblock to people downloading the app en masse. When COVIDSafe was first announced, there were concerns about the amount of personal data it would collect and how securely it would be stored.

Thankfully, these fears are largely unfounded.

The app only uses the information needed to alert you when you come into close contact with COVID-19. This includes your mobile phone number, name (pseudonyms and fake names are permitted), age range and postcode. As previously mentioned, the app does not collect any data on the user's location or physical movements.

During use, the app only records the following contact data:

  1. The encrypted user ID
  2. Date and time of contact
  3. Bluetooth signal strength of other COVIDSafe users with which you come into contact

The above information will also be recorded on the other user's device but neither of you will be able to access the contact data which is encrypted. The contact data stored on a device will be automatically deleted every 21 days.

State and territory health officials can only access app information if someone tests positive and agrees to the information on their phone being uploaded. This information can only be used to alert others who may need to quarantine or get tested.

In other words, the information cannot be shared with other organisations or used for any other purpose. This is covered under a new Biosecurity Act Determination aimed at protecting people's privacy with any attempt to improperly access the data prohibited by law.

That's not to say there are zero concerns about the app. For example, the source code has yet to be made public, which has caused some security experts to question the app's architecture and whether there are potential vulnerabilities the government doesn't want you to know about.

With that said, federal health minister Greg Hunt has promised the COVIDSafe source code will be released soon.

For more information, read the government's COVIDSafe Privacy Policy.

Can you delete the COVIDSafe app after installing it?

You can uninstall the COVIDSafe app at any time, which will remove all data from your physical phone. However, your tracing information will not be removed from the government's secure storage system. This data will only be destroyed at the end of the pandemic. (See below.)

What happens to my data after the pandemic?

Here's the official answer from the government's COVIDSafe web page:

At the end of the Australian COVID-19 pandemic, users will be prompted to delete the COVIDSafe app from their phone. This will delete all app information on a person's phone. The information contained in the information storage system will also be destroyed at the end of the pandemic.

You can request your data be removed from the COVIDSafe secure information storage system by filling out the government's request data deletion form.

Should you download the COVIDSafe app?

Yes. While concerns about software security should never be ignored, this is one occasion where we would argue the benefits outweigh the risks. In the words of the federal health minister:

"The more Australians who [install COVIDSafe], the better it will work to protect health workers and reduce the spread of the virus."

COVIDSafe alternatives

Currently, COVIDSafe is the only official contact app for the Australian public. Other contact apps are not supported by the Australian government and may put your privacy at greater risk.

If you refuse to download the app, we advise staying at home. You can discover the number of COVID-19 cases in your general location by typing the local government area into the search box below:

See more coronavirus statistics on our COVID-19 stats page.

The COVIDSafe app is available now on Android and iOS devices.

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