The COVIDSafe app, which we were told 40 per cent of Australians would need to download to be successful, has pinpointed just 779 of Australia’s more than 30,000 cases between 26 April 2020 and 15 May 2021, according to the Government’s long overdue report.

It comes almost a year after the Federal government was required by legislation to release details on the app and doesn’t include data on the most recent Delta outbreaks in June and July.

More than 1.65 million digital handshakes were uploaded to the National COVIDSafe Data Store (NCDS) and 2,827 potential close contacts were identified from 37,668 encounters, the report into the operation and effectiveness of the system revealed.

To explain the low numbers of positive cases identified, the report points to the success of COVID containment and contact tracing, which it said has limited the need of public health officials to rely on the app.

“It was designed to deal with the potential of greater concentration of infection in the community. … Nonetheless, every close contact identified through COVIDSafe was a potential outbreak risk,” the report said.

When it was first launched, the government said that 40 per cent of Australians, or 10 million people, downloading the app would be a measure of success.

The report said 7.6 million people have registered with the app, which was designed like the Singaporean Government’s TraceTogether app.

Using Bluetooth, the COVIDSafe app is designed to ‘take note’ of contact that registered users have with other users and shows potential close contacts to health officials in the data story.

These are users who have been within 1.5 metres of a positive case for 15 minutes or more. However, the app has reportedly not been updated for the Delta variant to capture fleeting contacts by reducing the window of potential exposure.

Created through the federal health department and the Digital Transformation Agency, the government reportedly paid almost $10 million to private firms for development of the app and continues to cost in the order of $60,000 for monthly upkeep.

Concerns around data access

App data is collected and used for contact tracing by state and territory health authorities and other authorities if investigating a breach of the privacy protections.

When the app was launched, there was initially no legislation or source code, raising concerns about independent oversight and public reporting on the use of app data.

A determination was made under the Biosecurity Act to provide temporary protections, limiting access to data from state or territory health authorities and prohibiting the decrypting of app data stored on mobile devices.

Data projections were subsequently enshrined in legislation through a privacy amendment to the Public Health Contact Information Act, including oversight by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

There were 14 enquiries about COVIDSafe, including 12 enquiries from individuals and two from businesses, from 16 November 2020 to 15 May 2021, according to the OAIC’s second COVIDSafe Report released in June.

The majority were general enquiries, with fours request to download or use COVIDSafe data.

The office launched four assessments during this time, which consider if an entity or a state or territory health authority complies with the relevant parts of the Privacy Act in relation to the app and the use of data, according to the report.

Incidental collection while collecting other data has occurred, according to a report by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS).

It notes that there is no evidence any agency has deliberately targeted, or decrypted, accessed or used any COVID app data.

“IGIS also found the agencies are taking reasonable steps to quarantine and delete such data as soon as practicable after becoming aware of it,” the report said.

“IGIS has not received any complaints or public interest disclosures about COVID app data,” the report noted.