Victoria’s health department will not release information on how many times COVIDSafe has been accessed, despite a recent rise of COVID-19 cases in Melbourne.
A new outbreak of coronavirus cases have been recorded in Victoria over the past two weeks with hundreds of active cases now known. While this isn’t an ideal circumstance, it does allow the COVIDSafe app to demonstrate its effectiveness.
Earlier in June, Gizmodo Australia had learned COVIDSafe app data had been accessed 16 times to assist with contact tracing efforts. It had yet to identify an unknown contact the manual contact tracing team couldn’t. A week later, it was understood the app’s data had been accessed 21 times, though it had still not identified a previously unknown contact.
Despite the importance of understanding how COVIDSafe is being used amid a second outbreak, Victoria’s health authorities are declining to provide details publicly.
With few other metrics available on how to measure its success so far and given the technological challenges it’s already faced, understanding how often the health authorities are using the app helps to paint a picture.
“If the numbers start to build up, and the contact [and app usage] levels stay low and we don’t know about it then we need to react quite quickly,” Professor Richard Buckland, a cybersecurity expert from UNSW told Gizmodo Australia.
He explains it’s important we understand how often the app is being used in order to determine its effectiveness. If it’s not being used the way it was sold then it might be time to go back to the drawing board and look to how other countries are using contact tracing apps.
Federal authorities claim no access to COVIDSafe figures due to privacy laws
The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), the app’s creators, and the federal health department have said they do not have access to usage figures due to “strict privacy laws”.
“The COVIDSafe app has legislated privacy provisions that ensure the only people that have access to any data collected are state and territory health authorities. Data such as active users is not available to the Australian Government due to privacy provisions,” a federal health spokesperson confirmed to Gizmodo Australia.
“State and territory health authorities have publicly confirmed they are using the data collected through the app as recently as last week.”
Dr Monika Zalnieriute, a technology law expert at UNSW Law, said the privacy laws related to the app do not stop states and territories from being transparent about the app’s usage.
“The Act does not ‘back-up’ the view that the states and territories cannot disclose how many times the app data has been accessed,” Dr Zalnieriute said to Gizmodo Australia.
“Even if disclosing the number of times the app data has been accessed could be argued to fall within the collection, use or disclosure of COVID app data, the s 94D(2)(b) could create a permitted disclosure if such disclosure is to ensure the proper functioning, integrity or security of COVIDSafe.
“Arguably, the integrity of the entire tracing app system is informed by the number of times the app data is accessed by state and territory health authorities and how effective the data is for contact tracing.”
Case counts remain low in most other parts of Australia but NSW Health confirmed to Gizmodo Australia on June 27 it had accessed the app’s data fewer than 10 times since its release in late April.
Gizmodo Australia has contacted Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services repeatedly since Friday for an explanation behind not releasing the figures publicly. It did not respond to our emails or calls in time for publication.
Low cases aren’t the only reason COVIDSafe is struggling to perform
Australia’s relatively low case count could be one reason behind COVIDSafe’s limited usage but it’s unlikely to be the only one. The app has been plagued with technical bugs, as a group of local developers continue to discover.
Those are mostly related to the app’s struggles when getting iOS and Android devices to ‘talk’ to each other with Bluetooth. Due to the different security setups of the devices, it’s not always a successful exchange of data, meaning the app is not always recording who you’re in contact with.
It’s suspected a lot of these technical issues could be fixed if COVIDSafe adopts the Google and Apple framework. Due to the privacy restrictions Apple and Google built into the framework, however, this might mean overhauling the complete app. The DTA has said it’s in discussions with the two tech giants but the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth told The Project on June 28 it wasn’t likely.
“[Apple and Google’s framework] fundamentally changes the locus of control, it takes out the middle person and the middle person is the contact tracer, the people who have kept us safe,” Dr Coatsworth told The Project.
“There is no way we’re shifting to a platform that’s going to take out the contact tracers.”
The office of Minister Stuart Robert confirmed shortly after it was still working with Apple and Google. However, it has concerns about information being withheld from health authorities by Google and Apple.
“Public health officials won’t have access to [contact tracing] information, which will reside with Google and Apple. This is high risk. People may ignore the information and that will lead to the further spread of the virus. Alerts may also create confusion and panic within the community without the appropriate support and guidance currently provided by public health officials,” a spokesperson for Robert told Gizmodo Australia.
“This would also make it difficult for the health officials to follow cases and contain outbreaks.”
Google and Apple stated in May that its Exposure Notification system was privacy and user-focused.
The app needs to offer automatic alerts, researchers say
A University of Queensland working paper also slammed the very foundation of the app, which it did not consider as a ‘true’ digital contact tracing app. The paper’s lead author Professor Rhema Vaithianathan told Gizmodo Australia it needed to have automatic notifications, otherwise even a 100 per cent uptake wouldn’t fix its problem.
“True digital contact tracing has the ability of the app itself to notify you if you have been with someone while they were infectious,” Professor Vaithianathan said. She explained that it’s what European authorities were looking to preferring technology that offered instantaneous, automatic cascading notifications to contacts. Something COVIDSafe doesn’t do.
“The worry I have, in Australia, is that that feature is not available so all these people have been downloading that federal app, thinking that somehow they’ll be notified if they’ve been in contact [with someone infectious],” Professor Vaithianathan said.
“They’ll be notified but it will be by a manual tracer exactly like you would be notified if you didn’t have an app.”
These issues are enough to make anyone question how useful the app has been. And without being supplied the usage numbers by Australia’s health authorities, it’s difficult to determine whether COVIDSafe is the fix it is promised to be. Considering how often the government has publicly cited the download numbers, it’s difficult to believe it has any other positive figures to point to.