Automatic contact-tracing apps may have gained support overseas, but a fierce early backlash suggests the Australian government faces an uphill battle to reach its targets for the app it plans to roll out within weeks.

The government’s forthcoming contact-tracing app – which will identify potential chains of COVID-19 coronavirus infection by using Bluetooth signals to monitor the user’s proximity to other users over time – could pave the way for relaxation of social restrictions if adopted by 40 per cent of Australia’s population, reports have said.

That widely-reported figure would mean 7.4m out of Australia’s 18.58m mobile phone users would need to install the government’s tracing tool, which will follow the model of Singapore’s open-sourced TraceTogether app and complement the information-delivery features of the COVID-19 app it rolled out in late March.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted that the app could be a hard sell but compared informed adoption of the app to “buying war bonds during the war” and told radio listeners that “there are things we might not ordinarily do” to help put the coronavirus pandemic behind us.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg backed away from the widely reported adoption figure, recently saying that restrictions on Australians’ movements would continue to be “based on the medical advice”, with the Attorney-General working through privacy issues.

“It’s all about protecting the safety of Australians,” he said, “and if you’ve come into contact with someone who has the coronavirus… it’s in your interests to know that and it’s in the interests of people around you to know that.”

An issue of trust

With user buy-in essential for such apps to work, the government had shied away from committing to the mobile-enabled tools already used in countries like China and Singapore – where 20 per cent of the population have downloaded the app.

A recent poll in France indicated just half of mobile users in that country would download such an app, due to widespread fears over giving the government detailed data about the public’s movements.

But with the UK announcing its app just before the Easter weekend, and an unusual partnership’ between Google and Apple paving the way for an industry-wide standard for sharing of contact-tracing data, the Morrison government – which recently slammed reports that it was collaborating with contact-tracing developer ImpactApp – seems to have decided the concept had built enough momentum to justify its rollout in Australia.

Privacy advocates wasted no time slamming the government’s promise to maintain the privacy of users of the app, with Digital Rights Watch chair Lizzie O’Shea arguing that without “unimpeachable guarantees” about the project’s scope, “people in Australia have every reason to be concerned about a location-tracking app from the government”.

“Everything about this needs to be transparent,” O’Shea wrote, citing the government’s “atrocious track record” on surveillance and suggesting that it “has a long way to go before it comes close to earning” the “social license” required to get citizens to acquiesce to such intrusive actions.

The path to 40 per cent

The Apple-Google partnership has provided a centre of gravity for the burgeoning ranks of social contact-tracing app developers, with a slew of academic teams and commercial developers pushing out similar apps.

Those companies’ publication of a common data-exchange standard, APIs and a developer toolkit for contact-tracing is “fantastic”, Jonathan Armstrong, founder of Australian-built contact-tracing app ConTrace, told Information Age.

Armstrong – a clinical data manager with clinical-trials unit Scientia Clinical Research who previously developed the data-exchange standards powering the NSW Government’s PTIPS bus-scheduling system – believes it is “inconceivable that we could get to anything approaching” the government’s 40 per cent adoption target by expecting everybody to use just one app.

Fostering an ecosystem of contact-tracing apps, which use common standards to detect each other and exchange data, might offer a better chance because it would help citizens feel they weren’t handing over their personal data to governments they don’t trust.

“Contact tracing is here to stay as an essential tool to make sure there is no resurgence of infections,” he said, “but uptake needs to be not only swift but extensive – and I just don’t see that happening with an Australian government app.”

“We might get to 40 per cent as a society, but at the moment everyone is madly coding solutions – and at some point they’re going to have to take a step back and connect the silos so everyone can benefit from this.”

Yet government intentions continue to muddy the story, with reports suggesting UK ministers explicitly discussed the possibility of deanonymising the data its NHS app collected, allowing agencies to identify individuals where needed.

As if the public needed another reminder of the Morrison government’s spotty record on privacy, the Australian Federal Police search of journalist Annika Smethurst was yesterday ruled illegal by the High Court in a stunning rebuke on increasingly intrusive surveillance policies.

The Morrison government’s credibility on privacy has been tainted by expanding use of telecommunications metadata, controversial laws around decrypting sensitive data, efforts to let the Australian Signals Directorate spy on Australians, and proposed new laws that would let the government hand over Australians’ data to foreign telecommunications companies.

Furthermore, the rollout of the contact-tracing app is being managed by Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert – with whom Australia already has trust issues after the illegal Robodebt debacle and recent crash of the myGov website after a demand surge that Robert wrongly attributed to a cyber attack.