A new COVID-19 app may establish a source of official data amidst a flood of coronavirus disinformation, but the Morrison government says the system won’t be used to enable the proactive contact tracing being facilitated by similar apps in other countries.

The Coronavirus Australia app, now available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, was downloaded some 482,000 times on its first day of release and has already passed the 1m mark just days later.

A new WhatsApp channel – powered by an AI-based chatbot and developed by Atlassian, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and “chat for impact” firm Turn.io – had attracted over 291,000 users and sent 1.25m messages in its first day.

Both offer a range of information including coronavirus updates and statistics, symptom checking, advice for supporting businesses, travel advice, and more.

“The communications channels are “going to help us as a country get the messages and information we need to do the right thing to save lives and save livelihoods,” Morrison said in a recent update.

“I want to encourage every Australian – you’ve got a phone, you need the app.”

A screenshot of the app. Source: Supplied

Not everyone was convinced by the government’s choice of platform: documentary filmmaker Angie Davis, for one, questioned the government’s decision to rely on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, given the parent company’s long history of conflict with the government on issues such as advertising and privacy.

The app was developed by ACT developers Delv, which, Department of Health CIO Daniel Keys said, has a “track record of delivering outstanding outcomes in short timeframes”.

Delv worked with the Australian Government Department of Health and DTA, with the development team workshopping with government agencies to identify what information they could provide and how.

Delivered in around two weeks, the end result is “a quality product in record time,” DTA chief digital officer Peter Alexander said in a statement.

The app and WhatsApp channel represent a more interactive form of public notifications than the government’s experiment last week using SMS messaging and the Emergency Alert system set up in the wake of 2009’s Black Saturday bushfires.

That message, which advised users to “stay 1.5m from others, follow rules on social gatherings, wash hands, stay home if sick”, repeated often-shared advice but was blasted by some as being out of step with Morrison’s escalating pleas for Australians to stay home.

A missed opportunity?

The app and WhatsApp channel are proactive elements of the government’s coronavirus information campaign, complementing data-collection measures like the COVID-19 self-isolation and test status notification form designed to be filled out by people who are self-isolating.

Widespread installation of the app would theoretically enable rapid rollout of automated contact tracing such as that accomplished by Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which was downloaded by over 600,000 people on its first day of release and has been released by the government as open source for others to use.

Some reports suggested the government was considering embracing a similar form of contact tracing, which uses promiscuous Bluetooth connections to build a list of any people that a particular user passes during the monitored time.

A subsequent positive test for coronavirus would make it simple to trace close contacts and notify them that they may be at increased risk of having contracted the infection.

Apps like TraceTogether “pose a nightmare from a privacy perspective”, University of Cape Town School of Economics associate professor Co-Pierre Georg wrote in a recent opinion piece about the challenges of preserving privacy while delivering important ‘track and trace’ capabilities.

Morrison has ruled out adopting such systems in Australia, noting recently that the government would not “cut and paste measures from other places, which have completely different societies.”

“The policies and measures that we will put in place for Australia will be right for Australia,” he explained.

“They will understand how Australia works and how Australia thinks, and what our rules are and what society understands and accepts.”