BY WILLIAM HUYNH and LAURA PLACELLA
Experts are skeptical the Federal Government’s coronavirus contact tracing app COVIDSafe will achieve a 40 per cent uptake required for it to be effective, despite polling suggesting it will.
Released on Sunday, the app aims to aid virus contact tracers in suppressing the spread of COVID-19 and has been downloaded more than 2.4 million times.
The app retains a log of people's phones a user has come into contact with via bluetooth connection, helping authorities identify who an infected person has crossed paths with.
However, it has raised security concerns for the potential for the data the app collects to be mishandled, or misused.
In a MOJO News poll, 41 per cent of our (approximate) 2,100 voters said they would download the app upon release.
Monash University pharmacy student Kaustav Bhagat voted “yes” in the MOJO News poll, commenting that he saw “no problem” with it.
“I feel like whatever’s good, whatever’s to help the government and whatever will get us out of this situation where we have to distance,” Mr Bhagat said.
The Australia Institute’s figures are similar, with 45 per cent of their nationally representative sample of 1,011 Australians saying they will sign up to the app also.
Newspoll produced a higher rate of uptake from its sample group, with 54 per cent of 1,519 Australians saying they would be prepared to install COVIDSafe.
To hit the 40 per cent target, more than 7 million more Australians will need to click download.
But experts are unsure 7 million more can be convinced to do so.
Monash University Human Centred Computing professor Patrick Olivier said the tracing app will be unsuccessful unless there is an “individual driver to it”.
“I think the main reason people won’t download it is because they won’t see an immediate benefit to them now,” Professor Olivier said.
He predicted there would be “a big initial uptake from all the people that have been waiting for the app to be produced”, but that the government will struggle to achieve a larger percentage.
Monash University Communications and Media Studies professor Mark Andrejevic emphasised the importance of having “legal frameworks in place”.
“Legislation is going to be important to guarantee the security claims that are being made about the app,” Professor Andrejevic said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt is empowered by the Biosecurity Act to determine any requirements necessary to prevent and control the spread of a disease.
His COVIDSafe determination, to be legislated in May, states that a person must not “retain the data on a database” or “disclose the data to a person” outside of Australia.
The app’s data is encrypted and users have been granted two layers of consent: the first when they sign up, and the second if they become infected so their data can go to the National COVIDSafe Data Store.
This data store is hosted by Amazon cloud subsidiary Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Canberra, but it remains unclear whether the United States’ CLOUD Act could subpoena AWS to produce the data held by them.
Professor Andrejevic said the Federal Government would need to “embark on a strong information campaign” to convince the Australian public to click download.
“Even in Singapore, I think the numbers were under 30 per cent [for the TraceTogether app],” he said.
“That’s a society that has a reasonably high level of trust in government use of information and participation in government initiatives.”
He stressed if Australians keep social distancing and a low infection rate is maintained, only a small portion of the population would have to share their COVIDSafe data.
Monash University Software Systems and Cybersecurity specialist and professor Carsten Rudolph was concerned with the government’s lack of transparency during the development of COVIDSafe.
“The government had only given the app to a really small number of entities and organisations to have it viewed,” Professor Rudolph said.
“This was a closed and secretive process that didn’t really help them in building up trust.”
“They had enough time to reach out to the academic community where there’s a lot of privacy experts and security experts who could have looked at it.”
Professor Rudolph also said there would be difficulty achieving the 40 per cent uptake target due to the general mistrust of the government with apps and data.
The professors told MOJO News they were yet to download the app.