Opinion: COVIDFail. The IT debacle that could cost lives

By Laurie Patton

June 19, 2020


Another spate of COVID-19 cases being reported in Victoria. China re-instating restrictions as it sees infections return. Our chief medical officer says his greatest fear is a second wave, and there’s the likelihood the coronavirus will linger around forever like the flu. Another IT debacle from the federal government. But this one is different. In this case we could see people die. We need a tracing app that actually works.

It’s worth noting that Victoria is the only state known to have actually used the COVIDSafe app. More than 20 people who’ve tested positive have allowed its health department to download their data yet this hasn’t identified anyone they didn’t already know about through existing manual contact tracing methods. Presumably the app missed numerous people with whom they must have come into contact.

Millions of Australians are out and about in the false belief that having downloaded the app they are somehow safer, because that’s what the government told them. It’s still running TV commercials telling people to download the app.

Documents released by the Digital Transformation Agency have confirmed that COVIDSafe’s ability to communicate between two locked iPhones – about 40% of the Australian market – was rated as “poor” and this was known at the time it was launched. While Apple and Google are working on a solution, you’d have thought this is something to be sorted out before launching the product, surely?

The big question is, will COVIDSafe ever work? An Oxford University report suggests around 60% of the population needs to be co-opted for a tracing app to be effective. Take-up in Australia appears to have stalled at around 25%. The government itself has said we need a 40% take-up level.

The effectiveness of COVIDSafe is “extremely limited” and the contact tracing app is unlikely to help prevent the spread of the virus, according to a policy paper from the Auckland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, the University of Auckland and Massey University.

UNSW experts say there are deficiencies in the COVIDSafe Bill and explain why the “Google knows everything about you anyway” argument is insufficient.

The Brookings Institution has cautioned against a “rising enthusiasm for automated technology as a centrepiece of infection control” and says it has “serious doubts” about contact tracing through mobile phone apps.

For the record, I have no in-principle objection to a tracing app given the current circumstances. But a review of the history of the COVIDSafe app will in time reveal two fatal strategic errors. Firstly, a failure to consult with the right technology experts to ensure the app was fit-for-purpose from day one. Secondly, a failure to effectively communicate the value of the project.

On the first count this exercise is yet a further example of a recent tendency for half-baked IT schemes to be foisted upon us. Not to mention outright debacles like the 2016 Census and the problematic introduction of My Health Record. The infamous data-retention scheme provides a good clue as to why IT experts are wary of COVIDSafe.

Nearly a month after it was launched, it was revealed that state health agencies were still having difficulty integrating COVIDSafe with their own IT systems and weren’t yet using the app. Clearly they should have been involved in the development process not just told to use it after it was launched.

People are wondering about the security of their personal and private information. The attorney-general’s department declined to give a senate hearing a guarantee that their legislation would override the US Cloud Act, which requires companies to hand over data if request to do so by American security agencies. This is important given that our data is stored with Amazon, a US company.

The attorney-general, Christian Porter, has assured us Australian law enforcement agencies will be banned from accessing data from the app. However, the commonwealth ombud has revealed that notwithstanding all the assurances from then attorney-general George Brandis, police officers have used the Date Retention Act to gain access to people’s web-browsing history without the legally required search warrant.

At the heart of the problem with COVIDSafe is peoples’ sense that they just cannot trust their governments when it comes to technology. Back in 2016, the prime minister’s special advisor on cyber security, Alastair MacGibbon, warned of a lack of trust in government digital services.

So my plea to the government and the opposition is simple. Let’s learn from this exercise and see if we can do two things. Firstly, let’s build a workable app that has the support of a broader group of IT experts and human rights lawyers. And secondly, let’s find a way to persuade the general public that, notwithstanding all the serious government-initiated technology stuff-ups in recent years, we can have confidence that the (updated) app is safe to use.

In the 1980’s television series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ James Hacker justifies squibbing on a hard decision by claiming “I am the leader of my people. I must follow their wishes”. There’s a lesson for the government in this, I reckon. It just hasn’t convinced enough of us that it is sufficiently in our interest to be loading up our phones with a mysterious app that some people say is dangerous – and nobody has proven will actually work. The government needs to fix it or flick it.

Laurie Patton is a former CEO/executive director of Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users. He is currently Vice President of TelSoc, however the views expressed here are his own. This article, since updated, was first published in The Lucky General.

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