The founder of a health data analytics startup says it’s “absurd” for people to worry about the government tracking people on its new coronavirus app, when so many already give away their location data to international tech giants such as Facebook and Google.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt released the voluntary CovidSafe app yesterday. It uses Bluetooth to track who people come into contact with and track those contact if someone contracts coronavirus.
In less than 24 hours, more than 1 million people have downloaded the app. To be effective, experts believe around 10 million Australians – around 40% of the population – will need to install the CovidSafe app on their phones.
Michelle Gallaher, CEO of ASX-listed health data analytics company, Opyl, said that “in the absence of a vaccine, data is our best defence in controlling and eliminating Covid-19”.
Gallaher said that around 60% of Australians, some 15 million people, already use a mobile tracing app that tracks location data and gathers information about who we have been in contact with.
“It’s called Facebook,” she said.
“Objecting to the Government’s app is somewhat absurd, given a very significant proportion of the population have already downloaded Facebook and allow Google to collect location and contact-tracing data.”
Gallaher said most users are unaware that the default privacy settings on apps such as Facebook and its subsidiary companies, WhatsApp and Instagram, allow them to capture our location data, but that’s not always a bad thing.
“Facebook’s ‘Data For Good’ program allows researchers free access to epidemiological mobility data to use for research. Facebook is an important potential partner in using data for good and keeping our community safe,” she said
The Opyl boss said it was up to society and politicians to establish the framework around appropriate data sharing, and make use of the data collected by social media tech companies to share value
“Firm, clear legislative and regulatory frameworks should allow safe and secure access to data, appropriate use, transparency and an obligation to delete or de-identify users under certain conditions,” she said.
“We now live in a data-centric world, and this obligates us as citizens to take control of our data and act to protect and engage in appropriate cyber protection measures. We must understand that data can offer significant benefits that can act as a safeguard in our lives. Sure, there are risks in every aspect of life and technology, but to simply say ‘no’ to data is to bury our heads in the sand.”
Prime Minister Morrison said that the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy’s advice was that the CovidSafe app would help save lives and save livelihoods.
“The more people who download this important public health app, the safer they and their family will be, the safer their community will be and the sooner we can safely lift restrictions and get back to business and do the things we love,” he said.
How it works
Health minister Hunt said that once the pandemic is over, the app and the information on it will be deleted permanently.
Information collected via the CovidSafe app will only be accessible for use by authorised state and territory health officials. It uses Bluetooth to look for other phones that also have 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 government says all information collected by the app is encrypted and stored in the app on the user’s phone. No one, not even the user, can access it and it won’t be accessed unless the person is diagnosed with Covid-19. The person then has to agree for the data to be uploaded to health officials. The data available is about close contacts – when a person has come within approximately 1.5 metres of another app user for 15 minutes or more.
CMO Professor Brendan Murphy said the CovidSafe app streamlines identifying contacts, which means people can quarantine sooner and be tested and treated to slow the spread of the virus.
“Without this technology, health officials have to rely on people being able to remember who they have been around, and being able to provide contact details for those people,” he said.
“CovidSafe only keeps contact information for 21 days. This covers the maximum incubation period for the virus and the time it takes for someone to be tested for Covid-19.”
Coronavirus has now infected more than 2.95 million people globally and led to 205,000 deaths. In Australia around 6,700 people have contracted coronavirus and 83 people have died.
The CovidSafe app can be downloaded from the app stores.