The Next Stage of Covid-19 – There’s A Government App for That…

18 April 2020

The question on everyone’s lips at the moment is ‘What next?’ As the realities of life under lockdown have become familiar, governments and the Australian public are now turning their minds to what could come after the current phase of restrictions. In this context, the Morrison government has told Australians that community restrictions could be eased through more rigorous surveillance of virus outbreaks and more efficient tracing of those who have come into contact with the virus. To this end, the Morrison government says it intends to release a mobile phone app that Australians could voluntarily download to trace their contacts.

The app, still in development, is reportedly based upon Singapore’s TraceTogether, the code for which the Singaporean government recently made open source (Its not clear why the government has rejected using the more recently released Apple-Google contact tracing API). “We’re very keen to use it and use it perhaps even more extensively than Singapore,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, said recently. “We think the idea of the TraceTogether app is a really excellent one.”

A number of countries have used similar tracing apps in their fight against the virus with varying degrees of success. The Morrison government says they can make faster and more efficient the otherwise resource-intensive work of contact tracing – that is, the investigative work of determining sources of infection, and notifying those who may have been exposed. It also means that we might not have to have indiscriminate, large-scale lockdowns, but instead apply them to geographically discrete places if there’s an isolated outbreak.

A well designed contact tracing app, with rigorous privacy protections and governance arrangements, could potentially play a significant role in helping us respond to the virus. But its effectiveness will depend not on how quickly the government launches an app, but on how many Australians can ultimately be persuaded to install it on their phones. For the technology to work effectively, it’s estimated that at least 40 percent of Australians will have to volunteer to use it. That’s a big ask. Indeed, it’s around twice the proportion of people who have installed the TraceTogether app in Singapore.

Whether an Australian app could achieve this kind of take up depends on what the government does before it is launched. Whether it can develop an app that offers a reasonable user experience will matter, and so will the early app store reviews. It’s worth taking the time to get it right.

Even more importantly though, like any public health measure, this is an intervention that will rely heavily on public trust. Many Australians will be cautious about an app that deals with sensitive information about their personal relationships and health. The public need to know they can trust an app like this. Governance and privacy protections need to be core features. While commending the Singapore app this week, Brendan Murphy also said: “Obviously there’s a conversation to have with the community about the acceptability of it.”

This hasn’t happened yet. We know that the Morrison Government has been in talks with the Singaporean government about the app since March, but Australians are little wiser about the government’s intentions.

There was no consultation with the federal opposition before the app was publicly floated either. Labor wants the same thing as the government here: to save lives and to save jobs. We don’t want to fight – we want outcomes, not arguments, but so far, like the rest of Australia, we haven’t been invited to be a part of the conversation.

So far, the Government has chosen piecemeal backgrounding of the media about the app rather than publicly releasing a detailed proposal for discussion. This has already meant inaccurate reporting, for example that the app would use GPS technology (it won’t) or that it uses mobile tower meta-data (it doesn’t). On this front at least, the Prime Minister seems to have ruled out this last part.

Given this government’s record with technology it should be erring on the side of over-consulting on the development of this app. The mishandling of MyHealth, and concerns about warrantless access to sensitive data, or that data’s vulnerability to theft, diminished public trust and resulted in at least 2.5 million Australians opting out. More recently, the collapse of MyGov under the weight of recently unemployed Australians, was blamed by the minister for government services on a fictitious cyber-attack. We want the government to do better this time.

Contact tracing apps are only as good as the public’s trust in them. If the government wants that trust, then it must trust the public and bring it into its confidence. We have seen some recent attempts by the Government to do just that, such as its release of some of the contagion modelling. This was welcome. For this contact tracing app to be successful, we need to see more of it in the coming weeks.