Australia's upcoming COVID-19 tracking app, explained

Australia's upcoming COVID-19 tracking app, explained
Urban EditorialApril 17, 2020

As Australia continues to battle the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced earlier this week that a new contact tracing app is underway to more effectively curb the spread of the virus. South Korea was one of the very first countries that turned to technology to combat the Coronavirus with an app called Corona 100m. Singapore followed suit by introducing the TraceTogether app. This week, Scott Morrison announced that Australia will follow Singapore’s footsteps.

The app developers

TraceTogether was developed by Singapore’s Ministry of Health and the Singapore Government Technology Agency. Australia’s app is currently under review by the Australian Signals Directorate.

How does it work?

Singapore’s TraceTogether app tracks a user's location by Bluetooth. Once downloaded, the user has to turn on Bluetooth settings on their smartphone. The app will then begin updating a user’s location across time. If a person falls sick, the relevant authorities will then use his TraceTogether travel history to map out his footprints for the past 14 days.

There are no details so far on how Australia’s version works, but if it is modelled from Singapore’s version, expect it to be similar.

Privacy concerns

A few weeks ago, it is reported that tech giants Apple and Google are collaborating to develop a new Coronavirus contact tracing app for the US. Debate over non-consensual use of an individual’s personal information by tech corporations is not new.

TraceTogether only collects a user’s mobile phone number, and data stored in servers will be deleted after 21 days. The data collected is also encrypted. Singaporeans are able to email TraceTogether’s support team to revoke consent, and their phone numbers will be deleted.

Australia is not working with Apple and Google, and the Australian Signals Directory has only been providing cybersecurity support. Scott Morrison also stressed that the Government will not make downloading the app compulsory. However, for the app to be effective, an estimated 40% of the Australian population — around 10 million — Australians will need to have it installed on their smartphones. 

It is inevitable that technology is bound to revolutionise the way we work in the near future. Under the threat of a global pandemic, it seems that this envisioned ‘near future’ is being accelerated at a much greater speed. Questions of personal data in the digital age have once again come under the spotlight — in the Australian context, the new app will show itself to be a testament of how far Australians are willing to compromise for societal good.

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