COVIDSafe app will help track Coronavirus and keep us safe
COVIDSafe, the app designed to help control the spread of Coronavirus, is here. It will help track down people who might be exposed to the pandemic so that they can be tested and the community kept safe. Here is how to get it, how to use it and how it will work.
The Australian government is hoping to get as many people as possible in Australia to install the COVIDSafe app on their phones to help with contact tracing and restricting the spread of Coronavirus which is facilitate opening up the economy to more activities. It could prove to be a vital tool in the control of the pandemic in Australia.
What is it
COVIDSafe is a mobile phone app that you can download for Apple and Android. Just search for COVIDSafe in the App Store or Google Play. You can also find links to download the app on the Department of Health website. There is another app out there called COVID Safe Paths, which is not the Australian Government app.
No word on whether Windows Mobile users will get one or not, but less than 3% of people use Windows Mobile. So it is not vital to the community as a whole for them to have it.
How it works
When you install the app it will ask you to register information about yourself, including your name and phone number. It then uses Bluetooth, which is the technology for short-range mobile to mobile communication, to detect nearby phones. What it is doing is looking for phones, which usually means people, who are within 1.5 metres. If 2 phones are within that distance for more than 15 minutes, it will exchange data with that phone.
The data is then stored encrypted on the phone for 21 days. Remember the standard incubation period for Coronavirus is 14 days, so this is plenty of time. You can't see the names and phone numbers stored on your phone, so there is no way to get the name and number of that cute girl or guy you saw on the bus on the way to work in the morning, nor can your parents see who you were hanging out with after school.
When you are diagnosed with Coronavirus, you can then use the app to pass the information of the people you were contacted with to the government servers. Health authorities will then confirm your diagnosis before contacting those people your phone has listed. This makes contact tracing much more easier for health authorities and it will help stop the spread of Coronavirus.
Does it work
Contact tracing has been part of the success of countries like South Korea, Iceland and Singapore in controlling the spread of COVID-19, though they have mostly relied on traditional contact tracing. Singapore has been using an app, TraceTogether (so much cooler than the name for Australia's app), but few people have used it, so they have mostly relied on more manual contact tracing. China uses some very intrusive apps for tracking people, but they have already eliminated the virus in the community through aggressive lockdown procedures.
Image courtesy of MarcelSalathe & Designer @ NCasenmare
Essentially there is a lot of evidence for the effectiveness of contact tracing, but no evidence yet about whether an app would be effective. There are a range of countries trialling apps, including Colombia, The Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Ghana, Norway and Israel, as well as the ones mentioned above.
Is it safe, is it private?
One of the key concerns is the privacy of your data. A lot of steps have been taken to ensure that the information is protected and in the health services, privacy of data has always been paramount. So your phone contains the details of the people you came in contact with, but you can't access this as it is encrypted and you don't have the key to decrypt it.
If you are diagnosed with Coronavirus, you have to give consent for that data to be sent to the government servers, and then they can contact those people. But when they do, they shouldn't be releasing your name and details, just contacting people to say that they might have been exposed. This is in line with current contact tracing practice.
Care was taken to ensure that the data is being stored on Australia servers. So it comes fully under Australian jurisdiction. There was some concern that the information could be stored in the US, where local laws would have applied.
Laws have been passed to restrict access to the data. Not even a court order would allow anyone but health authorities to get access to this data, with penalties for illegally accessing this data ranging up to a 5-year jail term. There is some issue though with ensuring that state laws align with the recently passed federal laws.
Finally, the only information that they know is who you came in contact with and when. They won't be using GPS to track where you go or what you did. From the data, they won't know if you sat on a bus near to someone or had a clandestine romantic tryst with them. Also, they won't use this data for any other purpose, even for enforcing quarantine or any other laws.
Issues and limitations
The obvious issue is that if you leave on your Bluetooth, your phone's battery will drain faster, and in the 21st century, most people would risk a 2% chance of dying for a bit of extra battery life (yes, that statement was written partly tongue in cheek).
The other issue is that it works effectively when more people use the app. The government's modelling suggests that a minimum of 40% of people using it will be required to allow the opening of the economy. They are appealing to the public with the argument that if lots of people use it, then restaurants can reopen, you can have friends around for a party and the economy and society can return to a semblance of normal.
Another issue is about whose contact information is being captured. It isn't everyone you walked past in the street, but people you have spent some time in the presence of. So it doesn't use geolocation to track your movements. This means if someone sneezes in your direction in the shops, or coughs on to a handrail on the stairs at a train station, they might expose you to Coronavirus, and the app won't have collected their details.
It is known that if we know who has come into contact with someone with Coronavirus, we have a good chance of putting those people into isolation and controlling the spread of the disease. Australia has managed to be a world leader in the control of Coronavirus and with an app like this, there is a greater possibility to reopen more of the economy.
There are of course risks with this. People might take more risks around social distancing. Law enforcement might find loopholes to use the data to find out where you were. Of course, the other risk is tens of thousands of people dying or millions remaining out of work. So there isn't that much risk with the app for me, as long as I remember to turn off Bluetooth whenever I am heading out to do any crimes (a guy has to make some extra cash on the side these days).
Download it and share it
To make this successful a lot of people need to download and use the app. So go to the links, download the app, then share that information through your social network. Share this article on Facebook, or share the government page through a range of social media. Encourage your friends to use the app. The more people with COVIDSafe on their phones, the safer we will all be.
Another very unfortunate issue is that most phones over 5 years old can't even install the app. A few of my friends who have perfectly functioning smartphones that just happen to be older have tried, and can't. This, combined with the fact that a large % of our population is over 65 and therefore won't even have a clue how to download it or even have a smartphone, means we are unlikely to hit that 40% target. I have it on my phone but apple disables bluetooth for programs running in the background, I have changed the settings but once or twice a day my phone disables the app and I get a notification about it. As for my iOS I cannot upgrade to the latest version on this phone, it's an iphone SE :(
Many Android users are wondering why to use the app they must give permissions for the app to access both Bluetooth and Location Services. If the app doesn't store your location and doesn't track your location, why does it need access to location services.
My solution is that if you plan to live a life of crime, don't install the app, and if you suddenly need to commit a crime, then disable the app while committing the crime. Otherwise, does it really matter?
Apple Phone users may have another problem. Some people are saying that when a user opens too many apps on their phone, their phone may disable COVIDSafe. An Apple update in May may solved this problem.
One issue with the data is that it is on Amazon Australia servers located in Australia. Because Amazon Australia is owned by Amazon in the US, it is possible for the US courts to force the US company to force its Australian owned subsidiary to hand over the data. Of course the Australian company would still be subject to Australian laws even when subject to US laws. An international law expert once explained to me that the main solution to an issue like this is not the courts, but international diplomacy.
Some people have having trouble registering their phone numbers on both Apple and Android. The solution seems to be to keep trying until it works. Maybe it is a server connectivity issue that causes this issue
Just a note, you may have trouble finding COVIDSafe by just searching on Google Play (I am not sure about Apple's App Store). This is because the app is very new. Instead click on the link in the article and at the bottom of the article to go to the government page. At the bottom of that page are links to the app in both Google Play and Apple App Store.
There are some reports of the COVIDSafe app interfering with other Bluetooth apps. The issue seems to occur most in crowds when the COVIDSafe app is using Bluetooth a lot, and when the other app also needs to use Bluetooth a lot for constant communication.
In particular, some health monitoring apps using Bluetooth, such as continuing glucose monitors for diabetes that are liked to a users phone can experience interference.
NOTE: This doesn't mean that diabetes shouldn't install the app, but just keep in mind that issues could occur.