Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: April 17

By Chris Woods

April 17, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Reflections on an Australian version of the TraceTogether app

According to ZDNet, parliamentary discussions have accelerated this week over an Australian version of TraceTogether app. As an ABC analysis details, the government is also grappling with the challenge of convincing Australians to adopt a tracking app at an identified target of 40%, a substantial goal when even Singapore currently sits at around 20%.

Where is the government now?

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy reportedly told a New Zealand parliamentary hearing this week that Australia is “very keen” to use the app, confirming the government has taken up Singapore’s open-source code and hopes for a greater rollout.

Meanwhile Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert announced that a local version is still some weeks away from going live, but is in the final stages of a Privacy Impact Assessment, with “very strong cybersecurity assistance” from the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate.

Robert announced that the the government is not working with either Apple or Google, nor would it be doing the tracking nor surveillance; instead, like the original app, Australia’s would apparently work through bluetooth connectivity and, if a user declared they were infected, a medical directory would then inform other users who had made contact for at least 15 minutes.

Reflections from privacy advocates

In theory, and going from Germany’s approach to the distinction between location and contract tracking, a local version of TraceTogether could be an effective form of tracking cases without violating privacy right; as academics and privacy campaigners wrote in Netzpolitik, rapid contact tracing as a “central precondition” to loosening lockdown measures.

However, on 6 April, Australian computing experts at Macquarie University and University of Melbourne warned of significant privacy failures in a study of the original app, ‘On the privacy of TraceTogether, the Singaporean COVID-19 contact tracing mobile app, and recommendations for Australia‘.

For clarity, it is important to first establish that the app operates by:

  • using Bluetooth to exchange information between TraceTogether users, including Bluetooth signal strength (a proxy for distance between users), time, and (temporary) user IDs;
  • logging this information locally (on-device) by the app in an encrypted form;
  • storing a user’s phone number and newly generated user ID on the centralised authority (the Ministry of Health server in the case of Singapore);
  • exchanging temporary IDs between users, in close proximity, that have been generated and periodically refreshed by the server using a private key;
  • asking a TraceTogether user who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 for consent to upload the app’s encrypted data logs to the server;
  • decrypting data logs by the server (who has the private key), which can trace temporary IDs and therefore other TraceTogether users who were in contact with the infected user; and
  • contacting relevant users through the servers’ user ID-mobile number database.
Researchers also identified an MIT Media Lab’s open-source app, called ‘Safe Paths’, that works similarly based on location history. Image: Safe Paths.

In their review of the app’s privacy features and failures, the team found that the app does provide privacy from other users and ‘snoopers’ (aka hackers).

However, the team identifies three significant failures:

  1. The app does not provide sufficient privacy from the Central Authority, in that the server does not ask for the data log of the users who are not infected or have not been in close proximity of an infected user. The data log only contains relative distance (via Bluetooth signal strength), and not the exact location where the users come in close contact. And, the data on the phones (not the data transmitted to the servers) is deleted after 21 days.
  2. The server can know the private data of a user even if they are not infected.
  3. The app can potentially be (mis-)used for surveillance, in that there is no check to ensure that the request from Central Authority for consent to access data logs is genuine or not, i.e., whether that user was in proximity of an infected user.

Thus, a curious Central Authority might be able to obtain and decrypt data logs from a large number of users yielding to potential mass-surveillance threat. Furthermore, even though the local on device data logs are deleted after 21 days, there is no guarantee that the data logs decrypted at the Authority server would also be deleted.

With the final three warnings in mind, the team recommend that:

  1. The app can be tweaked to provide more privacy from the Central Authority by generating temporary user IDs by the app, instead of the server;
  2. Future versions of the app be more decentralised, i.e. “push the temporary ID of diagnosed users to the apps and other users can locally determine if they have been in contact with them”; and
  3. Future releases of anonymised data logs be restricted.

In a similar report, ‘The Challenge of Proximity Apps For COVID-19 Contact Tracing‘, attorneys and an engineer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s civil liberties team identify issues relating to effectiveness, surveillance, privacy, transparency, bias — i.e. the fact that apps necessarily exclude individuals without access to the technology — and expiration.

How America could be changing for both the better and worse

On 9 April, The New York Times launched ‘The America We Need,’ an opinion series exploring how the nation “can emerge from this crisis stronger, fairer and more free”. For how it came to be, check out the Editorial publication and podcast, or editor’s letter on how it emergent following a planned inequality project.

In the latest article, ‘What Do You Owe Your Neighbor? The Pandemic Might Change Your Answer‘, the outlet partnered with members of FAIR — Centre for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality for a survey on how the pandemic has changed people morally.

Surveyors found that, almost paradoxically, the pandemic has increased Americans’ feelings of solidarity with others, as well as their acceptance of inequalities due to luck; the latter, NYT writers found, is worrying in that “may work in the opposite direction, undermining efforts to help these groups and reduce inequalities”.

“For the moment, the survey suggests that the shifts are effectively canceling out each other, leaving overall support for policies such as universal health care unchanged.”

In other, much bleaker examples of how the pandemic has impacted America:

  • Thousands of people have protested across the country over stay-at-home orders, which, as The Guardian reports, have been supported by right-wing figures such as Fox News hosts and Rush Limbaugh;
  • Health care workers across the country are being fired for speaking out, either online, via union work or directly to management, about a lack of supplies (The Nation);
  • March 2020 was the first March without a school shooting in the country since 2002, according to a gun violence-tracking organisation Everytown for Gun Safety (CBS); and
  •  Donald Trump and Republican figures have engaged in political corruption throughout the pandemic, from firing an inspector general tasked with overseeing bailout funding to treating federal supplies of PPE as a “money clip” to flat-out putting his name on welfare cheques (New York Magazine’s Intelligencer).

On the home front

Millions for airlines

Last night, the ABC reported that the federal government will pledge $165 million to underwrite domestic Virgin and Qantas flights to capital cities, as well as around a dozen regional centres, over the next eight weeks. This follows existing support for the airlines to maintain international routes to Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong and Auckland.

After suspending domestic flights last week, Virgin Australia will operate 64 return services in total from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth; additionally, the carrier has told passengers trying to rebook cancelled flight to do so online with Travel Bank credit.

Remote testing program

Elsewhere, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt yesterday announced $3.3 million to establish a rapid Remote Point of Care Testing Program for remote and rural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Eighty-three testing sites will be rolled out across at-risk Indigenous communities with the 45-minute Xpert SARS-CoV-2 test, which, as SBS explores in more depth, should come as a relief for communities in areas such as the Kimberley where results can currently take up to 10 days.

In state news:

  • NSW is set to relax restrictions on gay men donating blood and redress discriminatory red tape throughout the pandemic (The Sydney Morning Herald);
  • The NT government will double its Home Improvement Scheme stimulus package to more than $60 million, after receiving more than 10,000 applications in less than a month (NT News);
  • The Queensland Government has promised to continue consultation on proposed rental protections after the The Real Estate Institute of Queensland delivered thousands of angry letters to the Premier’s office within a 24-hour campaign (The Courier-Mail)

Three tests, elimination, and a possible end of the beginning?

Finally, after guaranteeing that current measures will remain in place for at least the next four weeks, the ABC reports that Scott Morrison has outlined a three-point-plan Australia would have to implement before relaxing any existing rules:

  1. Broader testing regime
  2. Better contact tracing
  3. Confidence in the healthcare system’s capacity to contain outbreaks

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the criteria drop as fresh modelling from Doherty Epidemiology suggests social-distancing measures are keeping the pandemic at a low enough level where the virus could be eliminated from mainland Australia in a matter of months.

As optimistic as that may sounds, also consider a new Science report, written by Harvard immunologists and epidemiologists, suggesting that subsequent global waves of the virus, possibly heightened during winters, “could occur as late as 2025 even after a prolonged period of apparent elimination.” In the absence of new treatments or a vaccine, the team posit that:

“… surveillance and intermittent distancing (or sustained distancing if it is highly effective) may need to be maintained into 2022.”

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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