'COVIDSafe': All your questions about Australia's COVID-19 tracing app, answered.

If we want to get our current coronavirus restrictions eased, the Prime Minister has told Australians we have to do three things: more rigorous testing, a greater ability to pounce on outbreaks, and better contact tracing.

The federal government says that’s about to become a whole lot easier with the release of COVIDSafe, a new app that will help state governments jump on coronavirus outbreaks.

Released on Sunday at 6pm, one million Australians had downloaded the app to their phones by 10.30pm.

LISTEN: Should you download the COVID-19 tracking app? Post continues after podcast.

Based on a similar app that is currently being used in Singapore called ‘TraceTogether’, the COVIDSafe app uses bluetooth to register the details of any person you come into contact with for more than 15 minutes; a “Bluetooth handshake” as the Health Minister referred to it as.

That data is saved – encrypted on your phone – so that if you test positive to coronavirus, your state health department will be able to identify all of the people you’ve been in contact with.

But while many Australians are happy to hand over their phones without a second thought – keen for any escape route out of our current reality – others are nervous about the level of power and control an app like this gives to our government.

Here are all of your burning questions, answered.

1. How does it work?

The app is basically digitising what is currently being done manually when someone tests positive to coronavirus. It doesn’t use geolocation, there’s no surveillance, and there’s no tracking only tracing.

All it does is connects to another person’s app if two people are within 1.5 metres of each other for 15 minutes or more. It swaps anonymised IDs, and that information is held securely in a person’s phone.

Covid trace app 15 mins
The app will only register a person's phone number if you're with them for 15 minutes. Image: Jenny Evans/Getty Images.

If you then test positive to COVID-19, the information goes to a secure national health store (online) and is given to your state government so they can start calling the people you've been in contact with.

You, the individual, will have to enable your state health department access to get this process underway.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said: "To be effective, users should have the app running in the background when they are coming into contact with others. Your phone does not need to be unlocked for the app to work."

2. Can it be used to track down those not adhering to social distancing?

The app won't be used by police or any other authority. The Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has confirmed that even the federal government will not have access to the data. Only health officers can access it.

"If you test positive to coronavirus that information is sent up to a national health storage and given straight to state governments so they can contact individuals who may have come into contact with an infected person," he said.

"At no point does the Commonwealth get the data at all."

Bondi local
The government has assured the app's data won't be used to track down social distancing rule breakers. Image: Ryan Jaye/Facebook.

It will only be used to contact people you've been in contact with if you test positive.

A reminder that you have the power to enable the app to give away your data. It's all controlled by you.

3. Do we have to download the COVIDSafe app?

At the moment, it's voluntary.

But a mandatory take up is not being ruled out, because we need 40 per cent of the country to use it in order for it to work.

As of late last night, a million people had downloaded it, but Australia will need over nine million people to have downloaded the app to reach 40 per cent.

"My preference is not to do that [make it mandatory]. My preference is to give Australians a go at getting it right," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Triple M, adding that he wants us to see it as "national service" like back in war times.

4. What is 'open source' software?

The government keeps telling us they've made the app "open source," and as Director of University of NSW Canberra Cyber Nigel Phair told Mamamia's news podcast The Quicky, that's not a term general users know.

"The government is getting quite cute when it comes to its terminology to make it sound like it's all legitimate. When we think about open source we think about train timetables - so Sydney trains made their timetable open source," said Phair.

Basically, it means that the app's design will be publicly available. Some software has source code that only the person, team, or organisation who created it - and maintains exclusive control over it - can modify.

By making it "open source," the government is trying to tell us they are being transparent and have nothing to hide. We, as Australians, can examine the code to make sure it's not doing anything we don't want it to do (provided we can understand code of course).

The ABC reports that the source code is yet to be publicly released.

5. What about my privacy?

If you use Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok or even just Google - you are already giving your private information to those companies. To make their app more watertight, the government has vowed to legislate the protection of user data in COVIDSafe.

"This is, as the Attorney-General has said, probably the safest data that has been provided by any group at any time in Australian history. It is the most basic of data, simply about helping to save your life, to protect your life and to protect the lives of our nurses and dock is and those with whom they come in contact," Health Minister Greg Hunt said last night.

Greg Hunt
Minister for Health Greg Hunt says it's the safest data in Australian history. Image: by Sam Mooy/Getty.

"The safeguards that have been put in place are the strongest ever. Not even a court order can penetrate the law .... not even a court order during the investigation of an alleged crime would allow the data to be used," he added.


The Department of Health has also released the Privacy Impact Assessment carried out on the app, which considered the software's privacy impacts and made recommendations to improve privacy protections.

Australia's Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk has given her tick of approval. She says that "important safeguards have been put in place".

There are still some privacy concerns among select experts, with the Secretary of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties Michelle Falstein telling The Quicky last week she doesn't think the information should be being sent to a national database first - it should go straight to the state-based authorities.

Victorians Attend Coronavirus Screening Clinics For COVID-19 Testing
Questions are being raised as to whether our data can be hacked when it's being held nationally, before being distributed to state health authorities. Image: Luis Ascui/Getty Images.

"It has some potential to be hacked, or leaked or breached," she explained, adding that we also need more clarification that the information on the app will be dismantled and destroyed once the emergency ends.

The federal government, however, says all data stored in the national encrypted store (which is obtained from positive cases) will be deleted at the end of the pandemic.

Dr Belinda Barnet, a senior lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology with research interests in data privacy, told the Sydney Morning Herald: "This is the first time our government has deployed a digital service with user privacy at its core, that is protected by strong legislation for one specific use, and requiring consent at two points."

Health Minister Greg Hunt also assured, "The data has to be kept on an Australian server. It cannot leave the country." If the data is used for any other purpose, it is punishable by jail.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy says he will be using the app, saying, "No Australian should have any concerns about downloading this app."

There is also the option, if you feel the need, to give the app a fake name.

"That is legally available," Hunt told reporters last night. "Obviously it is better, I think, if it is exactly who you are but above all else we want to be able to be in contact for the state health officials to be in contact."

6. Will the data actually disappear after 21 days?

We're being told the data will only live for 21 days before being wiped clean. But is that true?

According to Nigel Phair, it can be built into the architecture of the app: "You can design it so there is a sunset clause on that data on the device," he said.

So anyone experiencing buyer's remorse can delete the app and all of the associated data stored on their handset.

7. Who is downloading it?

As pointed out above, Australian Medical Association President Dr Tony Bartone has downloaded the app, as has NSW Resilience Commissioner and former RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

Labor health spokesman Chris Bowen said the app had been activated under the Biosecurity Act as an interim measure, but expects it will be legislated when parliament sits in mid-May, adding that he's happy to download it.

His Labor colleague Tanya Plibersek has also vocalised her support.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott has urged all Australians to download the app.

“The more Australians who download the app the safer we will all be and the more quickly we can begin to ease restrictions,” she said in a statement.

The world of banking is also behind it.

Australian Banking Association CEO Anna Bligh said: "Australia’s bank chiefs were right behind efforts to open up the economy in the coming weeks."

The Australian and International Pilots Association has also said they are backing the app's use.

Australian Noel Laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty is also signing up.

Last night on The Project, hosts Lisa Wilkinson and Tommy Little confirmed they were signing up.

"I am the person that if ever someone tells me to do something, I say no," Little told the camera.

"But I'm so sick of talking about this virus, I'm sick of people not being able to leave their homes, and if the one thing you do - if you don't do anything else in your day today - just download this app. It's gonna make it so much easier for us to live our normal lives quicker," he said.

Fellow host Peter van Onselen said he was initially dubious about downloading the app, which saw him have an off-air disagreement with his co-host, Lisa Wilkinson.

"Seriously, Lisa, you convinced me. You could call me belligerent. I'm doing it to be stubborn. I thought about it," he said.

The app is available to download from the Google Play store for Android devices and from the Apple App Store.

The post was originally published on April 21, and has been updated on April 27, 2020. 

Feature image: Getty.