A week ago I gave my wish list of features I wanted to see and didn’t want to see in a possible COVID-19 contact tracing app from the Australian Government.
My goal was to find the best possible approach to contact tracing while maintaining high levels of privacy for users that were concerned.
I got most of what I wanted, so let’s have a look at how it measures up and if I think that is enough to install the COVID Safe app.
- Bluetooth proximity tracking – PASS while not 100% accurate in determining proximity, it is the best tool we have for the job.
- Anonymised contacts – FAIL (kinda) – I ideally wanted to have the system not store any personally identifiable information (PII) I acknowledge that the Health Department needed this to make contacting possible cases easy and when time is of the essence I am willing to let this one slide.
- Secured Encrypted Cloud backups – PASS – Even though people lost their minds that the central database will be kept with Amazon when we have perfectly good hosting providers in Australia, I trust that Amazon will do the right thing and that the system has been properly designed and secured. Those that will point to the fact that Amazon is an American Company therefore our data is stored on US soil need not worry as Amazon has Australia based systems that I am confident would be used in this case. We can maintain sovereignty over our data.
- Background use with minimal battery impact – Too early to tell – We will see how this unfolds.
- Shutdown of App and support systems once the event is declared over – PASS – As stated on the Health Australia Website “At the end of the Australian COVID-19 pandemic, 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.”
- Opening up the source code – Waiting on confirmation – The Government did make noises and the tech community will surely remind them. That said, there have been a few individuals that have done some deconstruction of the app and aside from some lazy copy/paste errors that still make reference to the Singapore Origins the feedback has been mostly positive.
- No GPS Geo-location – PASS – This was never needed and by all accounts has never been considered. This is a non-negotiable so a big tick to see that this passed the test. (NOTE: Android needs location permissions to allow the Bluetooth functions to work. Less of a burden on COVID Safe, more of an Android thing.)
- No selling/sharing information – PASS – With the threat of jail time for unauthorized access and many public statements on other departments outside of health going for a “hands off” approach, I think the information gathered will stay put (unless there is a criminal breach).
- Running App in background – 50/50 – For Android users you get a win, iPhone sadly at this point needs to have the app running in the foreground. Apple and Google however are working on APIs (programming features) that will allow background contact tracing so this will no doubt be addressed with an updated version when the new APIs are made available.
- No Personal Information – FAIL – This would have been a nice to have as I understand that it is hard to quickly contact people reliably without holding PII.
- Mandatory Participation – PASS – Not only a really bad look but hard to enforce as some older versions of iOS and Android are not able to run the app.
- Access to unrelated phone hardware – PASS – No weird access rights were requested. Good going.
Granted it is not a 100% pass against my wish list it is still more good than bad.
Privacy and Security as I have said before is the weighing up the risk vs the benefit and making a decision based on that.
Because the benefit is significant, the tolerance to risk is higher so I have personally installed the app. Considering that the app has ticked many critical boxes I would say it has passed on the condition that there are further optimizations as the new iOS and Android APIs are available.