Morrison should press ahead with virus tracker app

As the number of new COVID-19 cases shows promising signs of falling to single digits, a mobile phone app could play a crucial role in opening the economy without risking a second wave of the pandemic.

Tracking apps are being used in Asia to help find contacts of infected patients. Credit:Bloomberg

The Age revealed on Tuesday that the federal government is considering asking Australians to download an app developed in Singapore called TraceTogether, which identifies people who have come into contact with someone diagnosed with the disease. Those people can then be asked to test for the disease and, if need be, self-isolate for 14 days to stop it spreading.

The tracking app, one of several in use across Asia, would provide a back-up for hard-pressed public health officials who now have to do contact tracing by interviewing anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 about what they have done in the previous week. Most infected people are happy to help, but since COVID-19 can be contagious for as long as a week before symptoms show, it can be hard to remember all your potential contacts.

The app also gives much more detailed information than interviews. Even if you were in a crowded place, it will single out only people close enough to be at risk, reducing the need for a public warning about the location that causes unnecessary anxiety.

Yet the federal government has hesitated to use mobile phone apps either to trace contacts or enforce quarantine orders. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously rejected the use of phone apps that track people’s adherence to quarantine orders as un-Australian.

Privacy advocates are already fanning fears about a government-run app having so much data about daily movements. On social media they have raised an alarm after the news Google and Apple are developing another contact-tracing app in the US. The fear is these tech giants already control the data of billions of people.

Australians have accepted a lot of other extraordinary things in the past month and The Age believes Mr Morrison should press ahead. The privacy concerns are serious but they must be balanced against the potential benefits, of which there are many. With unemployment predicted to rise to 10 per cent in the next few months, Australia desperately needs to find ways to ease restrictions on the economy. If we have a state-of-the-art system to trace and stamp out spot fires of infection, it will give us more confidence that we can reopen schools and restaurants.

Rather than giving in to scaremongering about Big Brother, privacy advocates should look positively at the protections that are needed to make this work. TraceTogether, for instance, sounds fairly safe, although there have been questions about its reliability on some phones. It uses Bluetooth signals to detect phones with the app in your vicinity and then records their identity in encrypted form on your phone. Only if you become infected with COVID-19 will health investigators be allowed access to your phone and extract the data. It stores the data only on your phone, not a government server.

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No system is foolproof, but as long as the data is anonymous to anyone except contact-tracing investigators, the privacy risks should be manageable. Use of the app should be voluntary, unlike in China where you need apps to use the subway and enter certain buildings. The Privacy Commissioner is now looking at what safeguards are needed on an Australian version of the app. With these in place, The Age hopes that the vast majority of people will balance the risks against the huge benefits for the community and then adopt the technology.

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