Australians toss aside authority issues in rush to sign up for virus tracking phone app

In days, 3 million signed up for an app to track potential contacts with those infected.

© Dan Peled/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock  People look at the central business district from Mt Coot-Tha lookout, in Brisbane, Australia, April 29, 2020.

By A. Odysseus Patrick, The Washington Post

A country that cherishes disrespect for authority has shown remarkable enthusiasm for a government tool designed to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading by monitoring millions of Australians through their cellphones.

On Sunday, the Australian government launched the COVIDSafe cellphone application. Using Bluetooth sensors, the program is designed to track people who come into contact with an infected person so that potential carriers can be identified and isolated.

Health officials said they had hoped 1 million people would download the app in the first five days.

It took 24 hours.

Within three days, 3 million people out of the population of 25 million had signed up, driving the app past TikTok and Facebook Messenger on app download rankings.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that wasn’t enough and used an analogy to Australians’ love of the outdoors to push for 40 percent of the population to sign up, the level government officials say is needed for the app to be effective — holding what Australian officials believe is a critical amount of data to help counter any possible new spread.

Contact tracing experts in other countries suggest a higher level of compliance is needed. In Britain, the National Health Service was advised that 80 percent is the target rate for a viable smartphone virus tracking and warning system, the BBC reported.

“If you want to go outside when the sun is shining, you have got to put sunscreen on,” Morrison told reporters Wednesday. “This is the same thing. This is the ticket to ensuring that we can have eased restrictions.”

Other countries have tried similar apps, although none appears to have been embraced as quickly as the Australian version.

Singapore’s TraceTogether has struggled with software glitches, including difficulties taking phone calls while the app is running. Israel has a similar app to Australia’s called the Shield, and Germany is working with Apple and Google to create its own version.

In South Korea, which is often cited as one of the nations most successful at containing covid-19, authorities publish cellphone location data showing where infected people have traveled. The United Arab Emirates is also pushing its own version of the tracking app.

The popularity of the app appears to be driven by Australians’ pride in the success of their health-driven lockdown — fewer than 100 people have died of covid-19 — and by heavy security and legal protections that should ensure the app does not infringe on personal liberties.

The software’s main feature is under the control of each individual. When people test positive for covid-19, they are asked to activate a function on the app that sends their information to the federal government.

Anyone else with the app who came into close contact with an infected person can then be identified and notified.

Each person’s location is not recorded — just whom they were near.

The information is automatically deleted after three weeks, and steep fines and prison terms will be introduced for misuse. Once the pandemic ends, the government has promised to shut down the system and wipe the information.

Not everyone is convinced. Barnaby Joyce, a former conservative deputy prime minister, said he would not install the app because it could be used to identify people he met.

“I’ve heard a thousand times people saying: ‘Trust us. This will never leak out. It will never end up in malevolent hands,’ ” he said in a radio interview last week.

“And inevitably it leaks out. It’s been hacked. A foreign government has got it. It’s been hacked by data harvesters. It’s been hacked by university students who want to get their thrills out of seeing if they are smarter than the software that protects it.”

© Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images  A photo illustration shows a new COVIDSafe app by the Australian government as seen on an Iphone to install in Sydney on April 27, 2020.

Software engineers have dissected the app and posted some of the computer code on the Internet. They say it doesn’t appear to contain any hidden features that could be used by intelligence agencies or police forces.

“It’s honestly really hard to find any practical privacy concern that is not purely based on speculation,” Troy Hunt, an independent computer security researcher, said in an interview.

Another concern is that a foreign government could try to access the data, which is stored on computers owned by the U.S. retail giant Amazon, either through espionage or legal means. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Australian intelligence services have complained in the past about extensive Chinese spying, much of it over the Internet.

Others counter that Australians readily give up personal information, including their location and credit card details, to corporations that might be hacked, too.

Comedian and lawyer Michael Shafar posted a short video on social media poking fun at concerns about installing the app, given the proliferation of personal data collected by technology companies such as Facebook.

“It is very hypocritical or perhaps naive to be concerned about the government’s storage of your data and not be concerned about all these other companies that are using and selling your data,” he said in an interview. “That’s the funny juxtaposition.”

See more at The Washington Post


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item News | Breaking News, US News, World News: Australians toss aside authority issues in rush to sign up for virus tracking phone app
Australians toss aside authority issues in rush to sign up for virus tracking phone app
In days, 3 million signed up for an app to track potential contacts with those infected. News | Breaking News, US News, World News
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