In the early months of the pandemic, the Australian Government raced to release a workable contact tracing app for COVID-19. Looking back at it a year later, it’s pretty easy to see that the COVIDSafe app was a blunder.
Following an FOI request, the Department of Health was forced to release an official report on the effectiveness of the COVIDSafe app. Unfortunately, most of the important information is redacted.
What does the government’s COVIDSafe report tell us?
The report examines 6 months of COVIDSafe data up until September 2020 and focuses on New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria — i.e. the three states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Australia.
Research firm Abt and technology partner Bdna were commissioned to evaluate the data that would inform a report every six months for Parliament on the COVIDSafe app, in accordance with the Privacy Amendment Act.
In order to provide this report, a “mixed methods approach” was used. This apparently drew on public health evaluation and technology review methodology to examine the available evidence.
In terms of appropriateness, the report states: “at the time of COVIDSafe development, there was an increasing recognition that to keep pace with a novel virus of such rapid spread the well-proven system of standard contact tracing would benefit from further strengthening by leveraging technological innovations.
“Stakeholders agreed that the intended objective of the app which focused on providing safeguards to open the economy were beneficial. All stakeholders acknowledge the challenges at the time of the app development, which involved producing a new digital contact tracing tool, for a new virus, and in a context of evolving epidemiological and technological evidence.
“To do it in a matter of weeks and under intense public scrutiny to safeguard both public health priorities and individual privacy rights was a commendable achievement.”
The report details that the COVIDSafe app was designed to be similar to the COVID-19 tracing app used in Singapore which utilises BLE technology to exchange digital handshakes between devices that are in close proximity to each other.
The sections that report on the actual data of the effectiveness of the COVIDSafe app in Australia were redacted and haven’t been publicly released.
Parts that aren’t redacted point to caveats like the strict lockdown measures in Victoria that would make physical proximity opportunities rare and the low transmission rates in Queensland during the six months.
Without any actual data publicly released it’s hard to say whether the COVIDSafe app was effective or not. The fact that this data has been redacted isn’t exactly reassuring.
In June 2020, Gizmodo learned that Victorian health authorities had accessed COVIDSafe data a mere 21 times, none of which provided any new contacts that tracers hadn’t already identified.
The COVIDSafe app has also been plagued with bugs, some of them critical, and doubts over its privacy and security. Combine that with bungled translations and the move to QR Code Check-ins and the use of the COVIDSafe app has been largely dissipated.
Despite all this, the report concludes that “based on the parameters of knowledge and capabilities at the time of app launch, it is believed that the COVIDSafe app was the correct tool to employ.”