Australia may mandate smart phone tracking apps to help coronavirus containment

The Australian government has introduced a contact tracing app that will be used to curb the spread of COVID-19, and may make it mandatory.


The Australian government has introduced TraceTogether, a contact tracing app that will be used to curb the spread of COVID-19. The app will use Bluetooth technology to track whether users who have voluntarily opted-in have come within nine meters of one another.

Australia’s Prime Minister, however, has not ruled out making TraceTogether mandatory.

"In Australia my preference, my very strong preference, is that we do it this way where Australians are doing it by permission," Scott Morrison said.

"My preference is to give Australians the go of getting it right.

"That's my objective, that's my Plan A and I really want Plan A to work."

Mr Morrison said he understood it would not be something people would do ordinarily, but that this was "not an ordinary time".

"I'd be calling on Australians to do it, frankly, as a matter of national service."

This comes as the Australian government has pointed out that 40 percent of the citizens would need to sign up in order for the app to function properly.

Australia will have the advantage of looking to Singapore for the effectiveness of TraceTogether, as the southeastern Asian country has been using it since March 20.

The app has been marketed as a tool to protect individuals, families, and society as a whole through a community data-driven approach. Specifics on proximity and contact duration are shared between devices that have the app installed. An estimated 17 percent of Singapore’s population has taken part.

In an effort to secure and preserve privacy, the app’s developers claim it retains proximity and duration details for three weeks, after which the oldest records are deleted and the latest data is added.

TraceTogether supposedly doesn’t collect users’ location data, which may mitigate concerns about location privacy usually linked to such apps. But the reality of proximity and duration data is fairly comprehensive, as the technology will be able to identify relative distance, time, and duration of contact with another individual.

Although bluetooth-based apps may not be able to indicate where you are on Earth’s surface, it can accurately infer your location when bringing a plethora of different data points together.

Even more concerning is the contact tracing model is not open source software, which means the technology is exempt from any kind of audit or oversight by any non-governmental agency. The government of Singapore has complete authority over the control of the transfer of valuable contact and connection details.

One question is how these systems will match up against corporation implementations like that being proposed by Google and Apple.

When questioned if the panel of health experts advising the government was considering recommending the app be compulsory if less than 40 percent of people signed up, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said making it voluntary was “the way to go.”

"I've always been a believer in the Australian people making the right decision," he said.

"As I've said, this is an add-on to what we have in terms of contact tracing and case finding, so I think we need to make the case for an app.

"We have to work to make sure this is as good and safe [as it can be] and cover off privacy concerns and so forth," he said.

It is unclear how the government intends to secure the safety and privacy of civilians when there is no entity keeping the government’s handling of the sensitive information in check.

At the time of this writing, Australia has had 6,498 cases nationwide with 65 deaths.


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