Emergency Comms | Emerging Trends | ICT4SDG
April 30, 2020

How Australia’s contact tracing app aims to slow the spread of COVID-19

By ITU News

Australia recently launched “COVIDSafe”, the only contact tracing app approved by the government as part of the country’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The voluntary smartphone app is a public health initiative to help keep Australians safe from the further spread of coronavirus through early notification of possible exposure.

“What we need to do is to ensure that there is tracing, and that tracing is about helping to find cases in the community,” Minister for Health Greg Hunt said in a recent press conference. “Now, public health officials have been doing that manually and today we’re expanding that capacity with the COVIDSafe app.”

At the end of the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread in Australia, users will be prompted to delete the COVIDSafe app from their phone.

In a news release, the Australian Government Department of Health said that the more Australians connect to the COVIDSafe app, the quicker they can find the virus, and that finding and containing outbreaks quickly will mean that local governments can ease restrictions while still keeping Australians safe.

Technology to speed up the current manual process

The phone app uses technology to automate and improve what State and territory health officials already do manually by helping identify people who have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

This means that citizens will be contacted more quickly if they are at risk, and it reduces the chances of them passing on the virus to family, friends and other people in the community.

State and territory health officials can only access a user’s app information if the user tests positive and agrees to upload the information in his or her phone. Health officials can then only use the app information to alert those who have come into contact with the user, and may need to quarantine or get tested themselves.

How COVIDSafe works

Once the app is downloaded onto a phone, the system creates a unique encrypted reference code just for that user.

The COVIDSafe app uses Bluetooth technology to recognize other devices that have the COVIDSafe app installed. When the app recognizes another user, it notes the date, time, distance and duration of the contact and the other user’s reference code.

The COVIDSafe app does not collect data on a user’s location.

The Australian Government Department of Health says that information and privacy is strictly protected.

To be effective, the app needs to be running as a user goes about their daily business while in contact with people.

The information is encrypted and that encrypted identifier is stored securely on the phone, say the app’s makers. Not even the user can access it. The contact information stored in people’s mobiles is deleted on a 21-day rolling cycle. This period takes into account the COVID-19 incubation period and the time it takes to get tested. Here’s more about the Privacy.

When an app user tests positive for COVID-19

When someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, state and territory health officials will ask them or their parent/guardian who they have been in contact with.

If they have the COVIDSafe app and provide their permission, the encrypted contact information from the app will be uploaded to a highly secure information storage system. State and territory health officials will then:

  • use the contacts captured by the app to support their usual contact tracing;
  • call people to let them or their parent/guardian know that they may have been exposed; and
  • offer advice on next steps.

Health officials will not name the person who was infected.

After the pandemic

At the end of the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread in Australia, users will be prompted to delete the COVIDSafe app from their phone. This will delete all app information on a person’s phone. The information contained in the information storage system will also be destroyed at the end of the pandemic, according to the app’s makers.

Deleting the COVIDSafe app

The COVIDSafe app can be deleted from a phone by the user at any time. This will delete all COVIDSafe app information from the phone. The information in the secure information storage system will not be deleted immediately, but it will be destroyed at the end of the pandemic.

If a user wishes to have their information deleted from the storage system sooner, they request a data deletion form.

Privacy

The Australian Government Department of Health says that information and privacy is strictly protected (COVIDSafe Privacy Policy).

A Privacy Impact Assessment was commissioned to ensure that privacy risks have been addressed (see the Privacy Impact Assessment Report and the Agency Response).

The Health Minister has issued a Determination under the Biosecurity Act to protect people’s privacy and restrict access to information from the app. State and territory health authorities can access the information for contact tracing only.

The only other access will be by the COVIDSafe Administrator to ensure the proper functioning, integrity and security of COVIDSafe, including to delete a citizen’s registration information at their request. It will be a criminal offence in Australia to use any app data in any other way, and the COVIDSafe app cannot be used in the country to enforce quarantine or isolation restrictions, or any other laws.

Other COVID-19 tech initiatives

The Australian Government has also put in place telehealth to save lives during COVID-19. More than 4.3 million health and medical services have been delivered to a total of more than three million patients through the telehealth items introduced for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Australians, their families and carers can call a dedicated free call support line aimed at supporting the mental health of those impacted by the spread of COVID-19.

Free daytime webinars are also available to help improve the online skills of Senior Australians and to keep them connected as they increasingly turn to the Internet to access online services and connect with loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Photo by Alexander Britton/PA Images via Getty Images)
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How Australia's contact tracing app aims to slow the spread of COVID-19

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