The race to contain coronavirus is underway in Australia. While local efforts to trace confirmed cases has likely resulted in a decline in spread, it’s an intensive operation authorities are looking to streamline. One way to automate that process is through the use of mobile phone apps but its prompting concerns over privacy.
Contact tracing is the method of detecting the movements of a confirmed case. This means once a patient is confirmed to have the virus, they provide health authorities with details of where they’ve been during the contagiousness period ” which can last for two weeks ” so they can track down people who might’ve been infected and test them. NSW Health has previously confirmed to Gizmodo Australia it involves asking the patient to give details on their movements and cross-referencing that with calendars and shopping dockets.
Like any process, a degree of human error is involved when movements are forgotten or misremembered, so while it’s been helpful in limiting spread within the community, it’s not full-proof.
To streamline this process, countries around the world have invented new technology in the form of apps to help track the virus’ spread. Australia, seeing how effective it’s been internationally, is eyeing its own version.
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Australia looks to Singapore’s TraceTogether for its own coronavirus tracing app
The ABC revealed an app was being developed by the Federal Government to help track the spread of coronavirus by tracing movements of confirmed cases and alerting any people who had been in contact with them. Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert confirmed to Gizmodo Australia it was underway and would be modelled on an app used by the Singaporean government ” TraceTogether.
“This new tracing app will be voluntary and will digitise the current contact tracing process that already occurs when an individual tests positive to coronavirus. It will only capture the same information that is currently being gathered by public health officials when they manually identify those who may have had close contact with an infected person for a period of 15 minutes or more,” Robert said to Gizmodo Australia in a statement.
“Crucially this app will ensure health authorities can get the full picture and not rely solely on the memory of an infected person. This will help identify people who might not even know they are carrying the virus ” protecting them, their family and the community more broadly.”
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While the full technical details are still being finalised, it’s understood it works by detecting app users who’ve been been in contact with each other for 15 minutes or more. Health authorities would then be able to see who’s been in contact with the infected person to provide them with the next steps required.
“The new app will enable health authorities to rapidly trace these close contacts by seeing who a diagnosed user had come in close contact with to provide advice, services and testing as required,” Robert said.
“The data of close contacts will only be shared with health authorities after an individual has tested positive for coronavirus and consents to it.”
While it wasn’t clear initially, it’s now understood the app will use Bluetooth technology and reportedly won’t hold any GPS or location data. TraceTogether, the app it will supposedly be modelled on, uses Bluetooth technology and also doesn’t hold specific location data.
According to comments from Robert, per the ABC, the app will also collect users’ names, age ranges, postcodes and phone numbers. This data will then be stored on a central database that only health officials will have access to.
Dr Nik Thompson is a cybersecurity expert at Curtin University and said contact tracing apps were helpful in easing the spread but reminded users to remove the app once the pandemic threat is over.
“These apps do help in contact tracing, especially in densely populated areas where traditional tracing methods may struggle. If such an app is made available in Australia, then it is worthwhile installing it for the duration of this emergency,” Dr Thompson said to Gizmodo Australia in an email.
“It is also worthwhile to remember to remove any such tracking applications from your devices when the pandemic is over.”
Without the app being mandatory for Australians to download and use, however, there’s no guarantee that enough people will use it for the app to be effective. Because of this concern, Scott Morrison wouldn’t rule out making the app mandatory but has since said it would be completely voluntary.
The App we are working on to help our health workers trace people who have been in contact with coronavirus will not be mandatory.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) April 18, 2020
It comes as the uptake percentage in Singapore, typified as a more responsive society to government initiatives, was revealed to be quite low.
“Singaporeans are generally a very law abiding society and we expect that they are likely to follow directions provided by the government or health authorities,” Dr Thompson said to Gizmodo Australia.
“When TraceTogether launched in Singapore, it started off well, but tailed off at around 20 per cent. That does not bode well for a similar app in Australia.
“We really need to understand what the reasons were for the low uptake in Singapore, so that we have a better chance of success.”
The government’s app is expected to be released within weeks but how useful it will truly be is something we’ll have to wait to find out.
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Apple and Google join forces to offer their own contact tracing capability
The private sector has thrown its hat into the ring with Apple and Google announcing they were teaming up to provide developers with a framework to offer contact tracing apps.
The tech competitors confirmed they would be releasing the API of device users across both operating systems to allow health authorities to develop their own apps. This would allow them access to the network of devices signed up, enabling them to alert users if they’ve been in contact with a confirmed case.
It works using a system where the phones emit a beacon between each other when within radius via Bluetooth and that information is then stored in each person’s device for 14 days. If a user is then later confirmed to have coronavirus, it’ll be able to alert anyone who’s been within range of their device in the past 14 days.
Just how a user can report they have coronavirus is still unclear but representatives from the companies suggest health authorities could send a QR code to infected users who could then put it in the app. Whether it will be up to them to self-report or if the health authorities could override users and force that alert would depend on how the developer programs the service.
Dr Thompson has said, based on the information that’s been released, the system seems to address most privacy concerns but there are still lingering questions.
“The specifications from Google and Apple appear fine in that devices only exchange anonymous beacons. Of course, this anonymity stops when someone reports that they have been infected with COVID-19 since their anonymous beacon number has to be linked with their diagnosis,” Dr Thompson said.
It’s understood Apple and Google won’t see this personal data, as they provide the framework solely, but that developers and health authorities could build features into the app to capture personal data. Expressed consent would still need to be provided by users through iOS and Android’s usual permission prompts.
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Dr Thompson points out that while Google and Apple won’t get the data, there are still some potential blindspots with the plan.
“Even if this isn’t explicitly linked with personal data, this sort of technology could eventually allow platforms to track and catalogue the movements of the general public and who they associate with. The current proposals comment that to mitigate this threat, the contact data should not be stored in any sort of centralised database,” Dr Thompson said.
Google and Apple have said once the coronavirus threat is removed, the features could be switched off at a regional level. It’s expected users would be informed of this when it happens but Dr Thompson thinks it’s not going to be a big conspiracy if the tech giants don’t do it straight away, instead the features could be repackaged for new purposes.
“I don’t think the platforms will try and sneak that past us, instead they might claim that this is a successful use of a new technology, and propose some other uses for it,” Dr Thompson said.
“For instance, how about a smartphone feature for conference attendees to automatically keep track of the people they meet? All of a sudden this intrusive tracking technology sounds more palatable because it is wrapped up as a new feature.
“Experience has shown us that when people make a cost-benefit decision about whether to sign away more of their privacy, a shiny new smartphone feature can be a strong motivator.”
There’s no guarantees as details still remain sparse but it’s a space many will be watching as the months pass by.
Privacy not always a guarantee
At the core of this debate is the data privacy of millions of Australians.
Both the government along with Google and Apple have maintained the privacy of users remains at the forefront of their discussions.
Representatives from Apple and Google told Australian reporters during a briefing call on April 14 that privacy and data protection remained the most important aspect of this development.
The government’s upcoming app echoes this sentiment with Robert maintaining the data would only be available to health professionals and is being vetted by Australian Signals Directorate.
“The app would be subject to a Privacy Impact Statement, the highest level of cyber security assurance and is only available to health professionals for tracing purposes,” Robert said in his statement to Gizmodo Australia.
While this is a good start, Dr Thompson points out that the projects, while useful, need time to ensure data is properly protected.
“The necessary building blocks, such as location services and mapping are already built into our smartphones, so building an app is trivial,” Dr Thompson said, adding many of these features were already available.
“Where the real work happens is in developing a secure architecture so that the data is properly anonymised and protected. It is this part that really shouldn’t be rushed.”
It’s not yet known how long the government’s app has been in development but Apple and Google’s project has been in the works for around two weeks.
Given the rapidity of the virus’ spread globally, it’s a fine line to manage but one that still remains necessary.
This article was originally published on April 16 but has been updated with the latest developments.
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