The government has answered some of the privacy concerns that could harm adoption of its tracing app, but it is unclear if it will work properly for iPhone users.
The question, that we won’t know the answer to for a while, is whether enough citizens will trust the government to keep its word, when it hasn’t on other tech-related laws in recent times.
Last week concerns were about US cloud computing giant Amazon Web Services being contracted to host the data, due to the suggestion that the US government could requisition data on the movements of Australian citizens.
While it remains a threat that AWS could be forced to hand over data to the US government, it is a hugely unlikely scenario. Such an occurrence were it discovered, would leave it with Huawei-style pariah status among the corporate clients around the world who trust it with billions of dollars worth of contracts.
The bigger immediate concerns about the app are around how effectively it works. The government held two separate briefings on Sunday and seemed unable to give consistent or cast iron answers about iPhones.
Last week Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said Australia’s Digital Transformation Authority had found a way to get around problems experienced in Singapore, whereby the app had to be running on the screen of the phone to be effective.
This weakness makes it useless for anyone who wanted to turn off their phone screen or look at other apps, while commuting or going about their business.
On Sunday there was a mish-mash of responses about how this has been fixed, which was most assured from Minister Hunt. He claimed the issue was resolved, but answers were less equivocal in an earlier briefing that suggested only the need to have the phone screen switched on had been resolved.
In that briefing it was suggested that Apple is still trying to fix the bigger problem, and that if an iPhone user is in a different app they would simply receive a notification asking them to switch back into COVIDSafe.
These concerns are significant given the large percentage of Australians that use iPhones, particularly as chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said he wanted contact tracing data for over 50 per cent of the population before he can be confident in using it as a factor in suggesting reduced restrictions.
The tech savvy who spent their Sunday discussing the new app on social media, also pointed to concerns the app will be a serious drain on phone battery life.
Many phone users habitually have Bluetooth turned off in order to save juice, but COVIDSafe requires it to be switched on. The app works by scanning every minute to see which other devices are near by, and how close they are.
If another person’s device registers 15 times consecutively, and they have tested positive for COVID-19 then you have a match. Disappointingly the app does not work accumulatively, so if you were sat with the same person for hours, but they frequently left and came back, they would not be recorded.
There is a cohort that will never sign up because of an unshakeable distrust of the government of course, and they have been given reasons to feel this way. But in unprecedented times, this feels like a trade-off worth making and I will be installing it.