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Mike Cannon-Brookes and Paul Bassat are backing the CovidSafe app as the tech sector takes on suspicious minds

- April 27, 2020 4 MIN READ
Photo: AdobeStock

 

Atlassian boss Mike Cannon-Brookes and Square Peg Capital’s Paul Bassat are among the tech sector’s high-profile supporters of the federal government’s contact-tracing smartphone app, CovidSafe, released on Sunday, but many remain wary of letting politicians anywhere near their data amid ongoing suspicion of their motives.

Cannon-Brookes came out in favour of the app, which uses bluetooth technology to track other app users you’ve been in close contact with for more than 15 minutes, so that in the event of a covid-19 infection, health authorities can trace who else might be infected, setting off a small brush fire about privacy and data following his comments about the app on Hacker News on Sunday evening.

As coders attempted to pick apart what they knew about the Adriod version of the app to check its integrity and security, the Atlassian co-founder called for the tech community to support the government’s efforts, saying the tech community turn off “angry mob mode” because it was unhelpful, adding that the government made some “smart privacy and security choices”.

“They won’t get it all right – and we as a tech community can help them. Find a bug & help get them closed,” Cannon-Brookes wrote.

“When asked by non technical people ‘Should I install this app? Is my data/privacy safe? Is it true it doesn’t track my location?’ – say ‘Yes’ and help them understand. Fight the misinformation. Remind them how little time they think before they download dozens of free, adware crap games that are likely far worse for their data & privacy than this ever would be!”

But his comments sparked a fierce debate, with many remaining wary of the government’s efforts amid ongoing calls to see the source code.

On Twitter Cannon-Brookes said he will continue to campaign loudly against “very bad tech and privacy changes” in legislation.

“This isn’t the same. This is a group effort. Open source and open data is critical to build trust,” he said.

Other tech heavyweights have also backed the government’s efforts.

Bassat, co-founder and partner in Square Peg Capital, demonstrated his support by downloading the CovidSafe app

To be effective, experts believe around 40% of the population – around 10 million people – will need to have CovidSafe switched on, on their phones. In a positive sign, more than one million people downloaded the app in less than 24 hours – a benchmark the government had expected to take five days.
The government says the information collected via the app will only be accessible by authorised state and territory health officials. It uses Bluetooth to look for other phones with the app installed, running in the background when people come into contact with others and makes a ‘digital handshake’, which notes the date and time, distance and duration of the contact.

The data is encrypted and stored in the app on the user’s phone. It won’t be accessed unless the person is diagnosed with Covid-19 and they then have to agree for the data to be uploaded to health officials. It deletes after 21 days, the danger period for a potential infection.

But a long history of cybersecurity bungles by the government have left many wary of the government’s ability to deliver a safe and secure app, despite the views of some, such as Michelle Gallaher, CEO of ASX-listed health tech startup Opyl, who said it’s “absurd” to be worried about the app when most people are already unwittingly handing over their location data to the likes of Facebook, via its app, as well as WhatsApp and Instagram.

Spark Festival director Maxine Sherrin was also positive, telling subscribers to her newsletter today that: “It’s been very heartening to see a technical project like this handled so well, in a very tight timeframe, whilst under pressure. Dare I say it, but any startup would be proud of the way the federal government has hustled, been responsive to feedback, and got this launch across the line.”

Nonetheless, high profile US author Dr Naomi Wolf is among those actively warning against the app.

Countering Wolf, Troy Hunt, the Australian web security expert and ethical hacker who created the Have I Been Pwned?, a data breach search website, said the negativity he’s seeing “is almost entirely based on unsubstantiated speculation and a general distrust of government as opposed to any tangible, impactful evidence” backing Cannon-Brookes’ call to “turn the angry mob mode off”.

Hunt sees privacy concerns as overstated saying on Twitter that “If the data ever is uploaded (because you test positive), what is now known? The identifiers of other devices you’ve interacted with which is precisely what a health professional would sit down and go through with you anyway, app or no app, except with more reliable data. How would I personally feel if that was me? Frankly, I’d be bloody scared about the impact of the virus on my health and that of the people I’ve interacted with.

“That’s what I’d be thinking about, not about whether there was any impact on my own privacy.”

Meanwhile the peak industry body for IT, the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) came out in support of the app following a briefing on Sunday by the CEO of the Digital Transformation Agency, Randall Brugeaud, and head of Australian Cyber Security Centre, Abi Bradshaw and others on the technology behind CovidSafe

AIIA CEO, Ron Gauci said: “Based on this detailed briefing and understanding that the app does not track your geo-location and that personal data and cyber security concerns have been designed into the app and through government regulations, the AIIA therefore supports the government tracing app and strongly recommends that all Australians download it.”

An alliance of digital rights groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre, Digital Rights Watch and Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, issued three demands for the government to meet to ensure public trust in bolstered, saying it must publish the source code for the app, and entire system, provide for independent oversight and mandatory public reporting of all uses of the data and that government should, by legislation, eliminate the possibility of police and intelligence agencies using their anti-encryption powers, to use the app to access any information on a person’s phone.

 

Even ACTU leader Sally McManus, a normally staunch critic of the government, has signed up for the app, believing, like many, that the good far outweighs other concerns.

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