Examining Australia’s COVIDSafe Tracing App

“While the government’s appeal to our better angels and altruism is clearly motivating to many people, many other people will be attracted to how it helps them, their friends, colleagues and local communities getting back to work, back to socializing at restaurants, pubs, sporting matches, music and other events.

“Similarly, the more people use the app, the safer it will be to open things up sooner, which in turn can limit the isolation and economic insecurity that could be causing spikes in mental illness, domestic violence and other factors affecting many people’s wellbeing.”

People Wary of Data Breaches
Department of Media and Communications academic, Associate Professor Timothy Dwyer says that while there is some complacency around online privacy, many are worried about the misuse of their personal data and potential security breaches. 

“The steady normalization of reduced levels of privacy has come about with the rise of search, social media, smartphones and apps,” said Associate Professor Dwyer. 

“There is a constant stream of data breaches and scandals. So there shouldn’t be any surprise that people are wary of government apps like this one that promise to take good care of our personal information and to observe our privacy rights.”

China Also Uses Mobile Apps for Combating COVID-19
“Australia is not the first country to use a mobile app to record contact tracks,” said international law expert Associate Professor Jie (Jeanne) Huang.

China also uses mobile apps for combating COVID-19, though this is typically portrayed in a negative light in Australia,” said Associate Professor Huang from the University of Sydney Law School

“However, undeniably, Chinese digital surveillance by mobile apps has helped China to successfully manage and constrain the COVID-19 pandemic in a short period of time.

“Considering the large population in China and the consequent difficulty in contract tracing, Australia may draw useful perspectives from lessons and insights from the Chinese experience.”

App Not a Panacea, Not Free of Serious Risks to Individuals and Society
Public health informatics expert and head of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health from the School of Medical SciencesAssociate Professor Adam Dunn says that while the app does not collect personal data, there is a chance the anonymized data could be re-identified in a security breach. 

“Considering the balance between utility and risks, I do not believe the app offers enough of an advantage over old-fashioned contact tracing to accept the long-term risks of its use,” said Dunn. 

“False positives will scare people unnecessarily: you could easily be on separate trains stopped at adjacent platforms and be linked by proximity. False negatives give people a false sense of security.

“While the app does not collect location data or personal information, that does not mean locations and the identities of people cannot be easily inferred. There are well-established methods for uniquely re-identifying people from anonymized data, just by knowing a few pieces of contextual information or being able to link two anonymized datasets.

“I also have concerns about the ability and trustworthiness of those entrusted to keep these data secure. In 2018, the Singaporean health system had a serious breach of 1.5 million personal records, including the Prime Minister, and accessed the dispensed medications of 160,000.

“The key problem is the increasing normalization of surveillance. In the last two decades surveillance laws have become increasingly pervasive, governments have been very reluctant to roll back laws and surveillance technologies once they have been implemented.

“As recently as this year, Australian federal police initially denied and then admitted to using AI-based facial recognition technology. People now seem to willingly accept encroachments on their privacy that would have seemed abhorrent just 20 years ago.”