(COVID-19 Smartphone App)
COVIDSafe was a digital contact tracing app released by the Australian Government on 26 April 2020 to help combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The app was intended to augment traditional contact tracing by automatically tracking encounters between users and later allowing a state or territory health authority to warn a user they have come within 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) with an infected person for 15 minutes or more. To achieve this, it used the BlueTrace and Herald protocol, originally developed by the Singaporean Government and VMWare respectively, to passively collect an anonymised registry of near contacts. The efficacy of the app was questioned over its lifetime, ultimately identifying just 2 confirmed cases by the time it was decommissioned on 16 August 2022.
COVIDSafe first began development in late March, shortly after the Morrison Government showed interest in Singapore’s TraceTogether app. Development of the app was publicly announced on 14 April 2020, with plans to release it for Android and iOS within a fortnight. The app had a budget of over A$2 million, A$700,000 of which went to Amazon Web Services (AWS) for hosting, development, and support. The announcement was immediately met with concerns over the privacy implications of the app and confusion over its distribution. For many, it was unclear if the app would be a feature of the existing Coronavirus Australia app or completely separate. Adding to the confusion, many news reports used images of Coronavirus Australia in their articles, and the COVIDSafe website linked to the Coronavirus Australia apps for a short time after release.
The app launched on 26 April 2020. However, there were early reports that some users had problems with the sign-up. For example, those who entered their phone number during sign-up received the following message: “Error verifying phone number. Please check your details and try again.”
Within 24 hours of COVIDSafe’s release it had been downloaded by over a million people, and within 48 hours more than two million. By the second week more than four million users had registered. Despite this, state and territory health authorities were not able to access data collected through the app as the health authority portal had not yet been completed.
Accompanying the release, Peter Dutton, then Minister for Home Affairs, announced new legislation that would make it illegal to coerce one into submitting a contact report, even if a person had already registered with the app and tested positive for COVID-19. A determination, titled Biosecurity Determination 2020, was put in place, with the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020 being later introduced on 6 May 2020 to codify it. The legislation further governs how data collected by the app will be stored, submitted and processed.
In early May 2020, the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 held a public hearing on the app, focusing particularly on its effectiveness and privacy implications and the source code for the app was released publicly.
In mid May 2020, the Australian Chief Medical Officer announced that the app was fully functional. The next day it was reported that the app had reached 5.7 million downloads, approximately 23% of Australia’s total population. On 20 May 2020, data was accessed for the first time following an outbreak at Kyabram Health in Victoria.
By mid June, over a month since the launch of the app, the app had yet to identify any contacts not already discovered through traditional contact tracing techniques, strengthening growing concerns over the efficacy of the app. Adding to this, some estimates put the likelihood of the app registering a random encounter at just ~4%. Concurrently, the Google/Apple exposure notification framework began rolling out to users, with the Italian Immuni being the first app to make use of it.
In late June, following a “second wave” in Victoria sparked by family gatherings, COVIDSafe data was accessed by contact tracers over 90 times. The app, again, was unable to identify undetected transmission. At the same time, a COVID-19 positive protester who attended the Melbourne Black Lives Matter rally on 6 June 2020 was criticised in the media for having not downloaded the app. Despite the identification of at least two further cases in attendance, to date no transmission has been found to originate from the protests.
On 20 July 2020, the government was criticised for contracting out part of the app’s development and support to a company with ties to the Liberal Party. Mina Zaki, the wife of the CEO of Delv Pty Ltd, was a Liberal Party candidate for the federal seat of Canberra in the 2019 election. Delv was engaged after the initial release of the app to assist with development, and was also the primary developer of the Coronavirus Australia app.
In a 22 July 2020 Sky News interview, Minister for Government Services Stewart Robert blamed the failure of COVIDSafe on the unwillingness of Apple and Google to modify their existing, globally deployed, Exposure Notification framework (ENF) to work with the app. ENF is an alternative, entirely incompatible, digital contact tracing protocol considered to be more reliable at detecting contact traces than competing protocols. For the app to take advantage of the framework, either the framework or app would need to be almost completely rewritten.
On 1 August 2020, NSW Health announced the app had helped them trace new contacts. They accessed the app data on a coronavirus case and identified 544 additional people, two of whom tested positive to COVID-19. By late October, the app had identified a total of 17 new cases.
By 29 November 2020, the Digital Transformation Agency was reportedly considering incorporating VMWare’s Herald protocol to improve performance and detection success rate.
On 19 December 2020, the Digital Transformation Agency announced the app had been updated to incorporate VMWare’s Herald protocol, to improve app performance. The update reportedly helps address situations where communication between devices might fail, such as when the device is locked or the app is running in the background.
On 2 February 2021, the Digital Transformation Agency announced a new update enabling the app to display state and territory COVID-19 case statistics. The update reportedly allowed users to change their registration postcode from within the app, which previously required reinstallation.
It was announced on 26 February 2021 that the app had been updated to feature state and territory restrictions, as well as improving battery consumption on Android devices.
Because of the ongoing technical problems surrounding the COVIDSafe app, the Victorian government developed the Service Victoria QR Code app to augment tracing efforts within the state. Use of the app is mandatory for all Victorian businesses, organisations, clubs and events.
Similarly, every other state and territory in Australia has their own QR-code based solution:
Australian Capital Territory – Check In CBR
New South Wales – Service NSW
Northern Territory – The Territory Check In
Queensland – Check In Qld
South Australia – mySA GOV
Tasmania – Check in TAS
Western Australia – COVID SafeWA
Victoria – Service Victoria
On 2 December 2021, NSW and Victorian health officials admitted to The Guardian that the data collected by the app had not been used a single time in 2021, despite the extensive outbreaks and lockdowns that year. In response to the poor performance of the app, Federal Labor Party politicians called for the app to be discontinued, while the Morrison Government began engaging with states to find a future use of the app.
On 16 August 2022, the incumbent Albanese Government decommissioned the app, shutting down remaining infrastructure and removing it from Google Play and the Apple App Store. The total cost of the app over its lifetime rounded out to $21 million, with $10 million going to development costs alone.