To Download or Not to Download?

The Coronavirus Australia App has caused a stir this week. Leanne Elliott looks at the technology and controversy surrounding the app.

Since the novel corona pandemic hit Australian shores, we have experienced rapid change. Among these changes is the introduction of the Coronavirus Australia App (CAApp), which aims to assist authorities with tracking and collecting data from COVID-19 victims and other CAApp users.

Controversy surrounding CAApp stems largely from the lack of information being provided by the government surrounding the app’s capabilities. There has also been some flip-flopping over whether the app will be mandatory, with the public being initially told CAApp would be consent-based, only to later be told the Government has not ruled out making CAApp mandatory; this flip-flopping is mostly due to tracking apps being largely ineffective if they are not downloaded by enough people.

What is CAApp?

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Photo by Pixabay on

CAApp is designed to assist governments, health officials and communities with ‘contact tracing’, a method used to trace COVID-19 victims and people they have been in contact with. This allows officials to map possible outbreaks and swiftly respond to people breaking quarantine.

According to the Australian Department of Health’s website the app has various other uses, including enabling users to:

  • Access to the latest official “information and advice”
  • Check the Australian stats
  • Check symptoms
  • Find important contacts

The exact details of CAApp remain unclear, but similar apps use Bluetooth to collect data from devices with the tracing app installed. Data is shared by devices when they are in close range for 15 minutes or more; though the exact range is not clear.

“We don’t want to emerge from this crisis in a country where the Government has the power to trace the movements and contacts of every single one of us, all of the time.” Alice Drury, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.

Similar apps, collect data which is then stored from 14 – 21 days. However, Australian officials have not made clear the length of time data will be retained by the CAApp server. There are also concerns about data privacy and security, mainly because despite CAApp app encrypting user data,the data is then decrypted by the app server; meaning user data is not anonymous. This private data is then at risk of being accessed by malicious internet users.

What are the Concerns?

Organisations and advocates for digital privacy and security have raised numerous concerns about CAApp, including (see 1, 2, 3):

  • The lack of transparency regarding CAApp capabilities
  • Concern tracing technologies will be used for mass surveillance
  • The need for a sunset clause to ensure CAApp does not become a permanent feature of Australia’s digital landscape
  • Further government encroachment on the public’s right to privacy
  • The threat of malicious internet users gaining access to private information
  • Social inequality, exclusion and manipulation based, and
  • Lack of consumer control over private information

Photo by Burst on

With the rapid encroachment of surveillance technologies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, issues surrounding the increased use of tracking and surveillance technologies, and the collection and misuse of user data, are again being widely discussed.

In any given year there are thousands of data breaches in Australia, so the concern is relevant. Data breach victims are usually small businesses, however, sensitive targets have included Federal Court, Hospitals, Universities, Banks, Political Parties, Parliamentary Services and Government Services, such as Centrelink and My Health Services. Even prominent companies such as Clearview AI, Amazon, Google and popular social media platforms are not immune to data breaches.

According to a report by Privacy Australia, customer confidence in companies protecting their data is very low and many users report they are unwilling to sacrifice privacy for convenience. However, Australians remain largely uninformed about privacy laws and are often oblivious to exactly what data is being collected, how it is being used, or that many data collectors actively profit from user data.

To Install or Not to Install?

As with many controversial subjects there is divided opinion.

In an article from the ABC, John Coyne provides some food for thought. Coyne points out we are in uncharted territory, the pandemic is a health issue, and without the tracing technology locating people who have been in contact with a COVID-19 victim is very difficult. Also, with a vaccine still months or years away, CAApp advocates believe downloading the app will help flatten the curve, meaning a return to normal will happen faster. Coyne also points out, given the circumstances the time for debating privacy concerns is extremely limited.

“I want to get more normalcy back in my life, so I’ll be downloading the app.” John Coyne, ABC.

Meanwhile, many privacy and security conscious Australians remain guarded, and are waiting to see exactly what CAApps capabilities are and how the government plans to progress with its implementation of the tracking technology, especially given Australia has fared much better than other countries and infection numbers remain on the decline, even without the widespread use of tracking technology.


Feature Image by Markus Spiske on

(Edited 16/05/20, Leanne Elliott)

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