This week the government announced its upcoming COVID-19 contact tracing app. Not a lot is publicly known about it yet, which has led to some privacy concerns.
On Friday Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t rule the possibility of making it mandatory when asked about it during an interview. Now he has taken to Twitter to change this stance.
Update: On Saturday April 18 Scott Morrison stated on Twitter that the COVID-19 tracing app that the government is working on will not be mandatory for Australians:
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
“We will be seeking the cooperation and support of Australians to download the app to help our health workers, to protect our community and help get our economy going again,” said Morrison is a follow up tweet.
You can read our original report from April 18 below.
The prime minister appeared on Triple M this morning and was asked whether the contact tracing app and travelling with a phone would become mandatory for Australians.
While the prime minister stressed that this is not something he would want to see happen, he didn’t deny the possibility. He referred to the app as an act of national service, likening it to buying war bonds back during WWII.
“My preference is not to do that, my preference is to give Australians the go of getting it right.
… I don’t want to be drawn on that [making it mandatory], I want to give Australians the opportunity to get it right. That is my objective, that is my Plan A and I really want Plan A to work.
I will be calling on Australians to do it, frankly, as a matter of national service, to do it in the same way that people used to buy war bonds back in the war times, to come together to support the effort.
I know this would be something they might not normally do in an ordinary time, but this is not an ordinary time. If you download this app, you’ll be helping to save someone’s life and I think Australians will respond to that.”
It is not clear on how this potential outcome would be enforced for Australians who don’t own a mobile phone.
The technical details around the contact tracing app are still up in the air, but we understand that it will detect app user who have been in contact with one another for over 15 minutes or more. Encryption will also reportedly play a part.
“Crucially, the 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,” said a spokesperson for the Minister for Government Services in an email to Gizmodo Australia.”
“The data will be stored securely and anonymously on the mobile phone. It is fully encrypted and cannot be accessed by anyone, including the user. The data of close contacts will only be shared with health authorities after an individual has tested positive for coronavirus and consents to it ” this mirrors the current information provided during contact tracing.”
Robert told Gizmodo Australia that the app will be voluntary, but the prime minister’s comments have led us to believe that mandatory adoption may be required. One possibility around this will be if the voluntary download rate is low. In Singapore around 20 per cent of the population is using TraceTogether. In Australia, it has been estimated that a minimum of 40 per cent adoption will be required for the app the make an impact.
Apple and Google are also working together to build contact tracing into their APIs that will allow developers to build their own contact tracing app. The prime minister said during a press conference this week that he believes the TraceTogether model is “less invasive” than the API model.
“The Google and Apple proposal does exactly the same thing, it is just that it is not a consent based model. The TraceTogether app, which has been put in place in Singapore is a consent based model and the reason we are not quite ready yet is we are still working through ensuring that it meets the privacy protections, which are robust and up to a standard that we believe is necessary for the Australian context and that is what the Attorney General is working on right now,” the prime minister said.
During a media call this week both Google and Apple confirmed that their model is consent based. While the contact tracing will most likely be offered via a software update, users can opt in to use it.
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.Read more
The confusion around how such technology will work, as well as communication from the government, has also been called into question by Australian Digital right group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA).
“The government has for some time demonstrated an aversion to transparency and plain speaking. In this public health crisis we need leaders who can speak honestly, transparently, and clearly to the public about their plans and what they mean for all of us,” said EFA Chair Lyndsey Jackson in a press release on Friday.
The EFA pointed to the government’s handling of private data in recent years as a reason why the Australian public may not be willing to blindly trust it.
“Australians are very well aware of the poor technology track record of successive governments. They have experienced first hand the issues with the Census, My Health Record, #robodebt, and MyGov melting down right when Australians needed it most. The government cannot assume it is trusted on technology matters because it simply isn’t,” Jackson said.
“We need a position on technology that can be explained clearly and is well understood. We can firmly say: Protect people’s privacy, be explicit with opt-in options, make code open source, store all data locally and in a distributed fashion.”
There is yet to be any concrete comment from the government around how privacy will be addressed with its contact tracing app, or whether a sunset clause will be implemented.
Gizmodo Australia has reached out to Scott Morrison’s office for comment.