21 April 2020

Tracer apps: a matter of how much you're willing to trust the government

| Emma Davidson
Join the conversation
Mobile phone user

Does the government really need to know every location you’ve visited and who else was there? Photo: File.

Do you trust the Federal Government enough to sign up to their COVID-19 app? Emma Davidson, who has a background in private sector software development and is an ACT election candidate, argues we should have serious concerns about the Government’s intentions. What do you think?

The Federal Government is developing an app to track who a person with COVID-19 has been in contact with. Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert says it may help in easing physical distancing restrictions. But I believe there are serious privacy concerns, and that it is unlikely to reduce virus transmission.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says that Australians can’t be trusted to tell the truth about who they’ve been in contact with, so we all need to give up our privacy to protect the community. At least 40 per cent of Australians will need to use the app to make it effective in tracing contacts.

Australians are wary of government agencies as data custodians. Millions opted out of the MyHealth record scheme in early 2019, not helped by cases like the Queensland police officer who provided a woman’s home address to her abusive ex partner.

Many Canberrans still remember George Brandis as Attorney-General in 2014 describing metadata as the name and address on an envelope, demonstrating a lack of understanding about how metadata could be used to reveal an individual’s private life.

Mr Robert was also criticised recently for blaming a MyGov website outage on a distributed denial of service attack, rather than a simple case of website failure.

Developers for the Australian Government app have looked at the source code for TraceTogether, used by 20 per cent of Singapore residents. TraceTogether uses Bluetooth to detect when two phones using the app are in close proximity, so health authorities can notify users if they have been in contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

But University of Melbourne researchers found that TraceTogether sends data to a centralised server, where it may be kept indefinitely and accessed by government agencies for other purposes.

Apple and Google have also developed a contact tracing framework. Low energy Bluetooth measures the distance between two contacts (based on signal strength) and runs in the background with less battery impact than GPS tracking.

Encrypted mobile numbers of contacts would be stored on a user’s phone for 14 days, and then deleted. If a user tells the app they have tested positive, a message could be automatically sent to recent close contacts. Unlike TraceTogether, Apple and Google’s framework does not rely on health authorities to send messages, and does not require data to be stored in a centralised database.

It is not clear whether the Australian app will use Bluetooth or GPS. If the Australian app uses GPS, it will have logs of the location of the user, and anyone else nearby – more data than is needed for contact tracing.

Robert has said the user would need to consent to health authorities using the encrypted data in the app to identify recent close contacts, indicating there may be a centralised database or a way for government agencies to decrypt data stored on phones.

With the likelihood that take-up in Australia will be lower than in Singapore, the app will not work for contact tracing. But it may convince some Australians to hand over their location data and a list of known contacts to government agencies.

If that happens, we may see fewer situations like police going through journalist Annika Smethurst’s underwear drawer or lawyer Bernard Collaery’s filing cabinet. Instead, government agencies can just check the database, and we’ll have no way of knowing what they’re accessing or how often.

While the government is having conniptions over their inability to track our movements, our community is coming together to take care of each other.

They’re setting up mutual aid groups and community pantries. They’re donating to charity organisations. They’re donating blood. They’re supporting local restaurants that have switched to takeaways. They’re calling their neighbours and family and friends to ask how they’re doing. They’re staying home. This is the Canberra I live in, and these are the people I trust to do the best we all can to reduce the spread of the virus.

I call on the ACT Chief Minister to tell the Prime Minister we won’t support the use of this app unless he can show it won’t collect any more data than is truly needed, won’t be stored in a centralised database, and can’t be decrypted by thousands of government agency employees who don’t need access to our every move.

Emma Davidson is the ACT Greens candidate for Murrumbidgee and spokesperson on democracy and community engagement.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
russianafroman12:45 pm 22 Apr 20

We should not allow fear to dictate our moves. The government is using the virus to spread fear and justify tyrannical moves which otherwise would never be accepted. Soon government tracking won’t be optional. Anyone who does any kind of cursory research would know trusting the government is a grave mistake.

You are the one spreading fear, not the government.

russianafroman12:32 pm 22 Apr 20

Plenty of intelligent and well thought-out arguments in this section which is good to see. Despite this, it also seems there’s plenty of misinformation and naivety spreading around. If you read the article, you’d understand why most people aren’t ok with their private information being public. Seems to be an issue mostly prevalent in older folk. If you don’t mistrust the government in this day and age, you’re not paying attention. We should be constantly pressuring the government to do better. Complicity will be the death of our free society. It doesn’t take long before a government becomes tyrannical, it’s happened before, it’s currently happening, and it will happen in the future. There’s no way to reach tyranny faster than through an ignorant or complicit populace, and it seems the liberals know this. I fully support what the greens are doing to fight ignorance and an over-zealous government, and I condemn those who fail understand the evils government, world history and current politics. To give a hypothetical – as an immigrant, with perhaps slightly dodgy paperwork, would you really feel comfortable for yourself and your family knowing the Republican Party is malicious tracking your movement on a day-to-day basis? Wouldn’t think so. Canberra is clearly far too perfect of a place to the point which people have became ignorant, misinformed and naive.

Once cash is removed from the system and our ability to maintain our privacy is removed in my mind we will have moved to a totalitarian system albeit we’ll have two dictators taking their turn to rule.

russianafroman12:33 pm 22 Apr 20

Seems strange to think of tyranny as an inevitable stage in our country’s future. Not sure why you believe this.

I would install an app that used the approach described for the Apple and Google framework. Very sensible and low energy, preserves privacy by shedding data older than 14 days and then communicating with others directly. Very elegant lightweight solution.

russianafroman12:35 pm 22 Apr 20

Understandable. Our government is woefully inept and cannot be trusted to use our information in a way which isn’t malicious.


You’d have to be stupid to think installing this would be a good idea. Look at how often governments misuse data already. Attempting to ban and backdoor end to end encryption, and now this?

Yeah, nah. Anybody who installs this is a traitor to basic freedom and privacy of every Australian, no matter what the government is trying to dress it up as.

And yet we trust the likes of google, Facebook etc and all the other apps that want us to enable geolocation.

I’m not in foil hat conspiracy theorist but I have no doubt that data from Facebook and google in particular is already shared with government already.

And Barnaby is a fool if he thinks that his government issued phone doesn’t have some form of geolocation application on it reporting his whereabouts all the time.

If you give google and facebook permission to access your device location, you’re probably a bit ignorant as to how that data is misused. And no, phones issued by government departments don’t have geolocation tracking on at all times, or none of the several Fed Gov departments I have done work for had it as part of their MDM solution.

It’s really not about being a “conspiracy theorist”. It is about valuing your privacy and that of others, and recognising where this kind of thing is headed. I don’t believe the government has any need at all to know my location at all times, and I certainly don’t believe they have any need to be able to read or listen to all of my communications. I believe everybody has a basic right to privacy, even for mundane daily conversations. The whole “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” line is one taken directly from the playbook of communist China and other dictatorships. Bad enough we seem to have a community full of people willing to spy on their neighbours and inform on them to the local Stasi as if we are living in East Germany.

russianafroman12:39 pm 22 Apr 20

JC, I find it ironic how you accuse people who are concerned of their privacy of being conspiracy theorists, yet you conspire that the government is probably already maliciously tracking people. If you’re complicit in such tyrannical moves by the liberal government, you’re part of the problem and frankly deserve whatever this results in. This debate is about looking at world history and realising that governments should never be trusted. If you trust government, you’re incredibly naive. Do even an ounce of research and I guarantee you’ll change face.

russianafroman12:41 pm 22 Apr 20

Well said Grim. Glad to see you’ve read into history and government. The best way to solve ignorance is through education. Continue educating those around you and perhaps tomorrow won’t be so dark.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.