It may have been installed on more than 7.9 million Australian mobile phones over the past two years, but the widely-lambasted COVIDSafe mobile app has been discontinued by the new government after costing $21 million and finding just two unknown COVID-19 cases.
Launched in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was just taking off in Australia, the iOS and Android mobile apps were supposed to help increasingly overwhelmed human contact tracers, automating contact tracing and collecting data to better understand the novel virus’s spread.
Then Prime Minister Scott Morrison likened the app to sunscreen, calling it the “ticket to a COVID-safe Australia” and arguing that its promise of widespread passive contact tracing was the best way of “ensuring that we can have eased restrictions and Australians can go back to the lifestyle and the many things that they were previously able to do.”
That was in April 2020, as states were frantically implementing new policies to contain the spread of the virus and just weeks before the Victorian Government announced what would ultimately be more than eight months of intermittent lockdowns.
As technical problems surfaced and low levels of buy-in limited its effectiveness – fewer than 800 users consented to having their data added to the National COVIDSafe Data Store for contact tracing – the app quickly earned a reputation as a lemon despite being installed on around 1 in 3 Australian mobiles.
Earlier this year, a joint UNSW-University of Queensland analysis of the app’s performance between May and November 2020 found that just 22 per cent of the 619 detected COVID cases were using the app – which only detected 15 per cent of the “true close contacts” identified by conventional contact tracing.
COVIDSafe detected just 17 additional “true close contacts in NSW during the six-month evaluation period,” the authors of the study noted, concluding that the app “caused substantial additional work for contact tracers and overall, did not make a meaningful contribution to the COVID response in NSW.”
That’s a poor return for an app that cost $10 million to develop, $7 million to advertise and market to the public, $2.1 million for maintenance, and over $2 million for staff.
A formal Department of Health evaluation of the app, released under FOI, praised the “commendable” process by which it was rapidly created “under intense public scrutiny”, but redacted detailed data on its effectiveness.
The app ultimately identified just two positive cases that contact tracers hadn’t separately identified, Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler said in announcing his decision to pull the plug on the app.
No new data has been added to the COVIDSafe Data Store since May 2021, and the data has not been accessed by state and territory health authorities since January this year.
Now, more than two years after it debuted, the app’s ongoing poor performance had left it a legacy as “a colossal waste… of taxpayers’ money,” Butler said.
“It was contact tracers working on the ground who were the real success story… It is clear this app failed as a public health measure and that’s why we’ve acted to delete it.”
But what happens to the data?
As parodists wasted no time making light of the COVIDSafe app’s downfall, authorities were already planning for its orderly decommissioning as Butler’s new Privacy (Public Health Contact Information) (End of the COVIDSafe data period) Determination 2022 takes effect.
Push notifications and SMS texts will be sent to users to encourage them to delete the app, whose description has been updated in the Apple Store and Google Play Store to advise that the app will no longer collect or transmit data; that data will be deleted from the National COVIDSafe Data Store; and that data on the device will be deleted when the app is uninstalled.
The handling of COVIDSafe app data was highly contentious during its early days, with so much controversy about how the highly personal location data would be collected, stored, and used that Parliament had to pass special legislation to outline the data handling regime.
Although the government’s original determination said that all data would be “deleted at the end of the pandemic”, the minister’s formal direction that the COVIDSafe data period has concluded will see the legislation repealed within 90 days and supporting infrastructure, including the COVIDSafe website, decommissioned.
That process will see all data – including registration data, diagnostic information, consents, and contact data – deleted from the National COVIDSafe Data Store “as soon as practicable”, with the COVIDSafe website to be updated when the deletion process is complete.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) will also conduct an assessment of data management practices to ensure that promises initially made around the privacy of the data – and generally validated in an April analysis – are respected.
Users’ individual COVIDSafe data will be deleted when they remove the app from their devices – an action that is now formally recommended by the minister.