Should Australia ditch the COVIDSafe app for the Apple and Google alternative?

By Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Monday June 29, 2020

Last week, the UK government announced it is ditching development of its own COVID-19 contact tracing app, and adopting the tech co-created by giants Apple and Google.

In Australia, as we see a resurgence of coronavirus cases in Victoria, and a dearth of information from the COVIDSafe app, should the federal government consider switching too?

The Morrison government released its COVIDSafe contact tracing app back in April, amid promises that enough downloads could lead to earlier lifting of restrictions.

At the time, the tech community largely got behind the app, with Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes calling on doubters to “turn the angry mob mode off”, and developers unpicking the code to assess the app’s approach to privacy.

But, as of June 10, despite more than 6 million downloads, the Australian app hadn’t produced any useful information to speak of.

Health authorities said this is simply because numbers were so low. But, during that time, some 565 new cases were diagnosed in Australia.

The app has also been plagued with bugs. An issue that stopped the app from working in the background on iPhones hampered functionality, and it has since been reported that the government was aware of this from the very start.

According to a report from the ABC, the government’s own testing showed the app’s ability to communicate with locked iPhones was rated as ‘poor’, meaning it was effective less than 25% of the time.

In the meantime, Apple and Google have teamed up to build an alternative app, using a decentralised framework, which brings bolstered privacy protections. It’s reportedly already in use in several countries. And, to some, it promises a compelling alternative.

Speaking to InnovationAus, software developer Geoffrey Huntley suggested adoption of Google and Apple’s app would not only smooth over some of the bugs and improve functionality of the tracing service, it could also assist with cross-border contact tracing, when international borders open.

Switching services is “highly recommended”, he said.

“Moving to the Google and Apple standard means that COVIDSafe would continue to work even if an iPhone was to terminate the app in the background. My concern is that the design of COVIDSafe necessarily depends on using Bluetooth in a way that it was not designed to, namely connecting to any untrusted device that happens to be in range.

“This issue was a consequence of not using the Apple and Google Exposure Notification API. If that had been used instead, we’d have a more functional, more reliable and more secure and trustworthy app.”

This article is curated from our sister publication, SmartCompany.

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