News Coronavirus Big Brother was already watching: Bad news for COVIDSafe app sceptics

Big Brother was already watching: Bad news for COVIDSafe app sceptics

Smartphone users have been handing their data out for years - why is COVIDSafe any different? Photo: Getty
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On Sunday the Australian government launched its coronavirus tracing app, COVIDSafe  sparking suspicions about personal privacy and security.

While more than one million Aussies have downloaded the app already, it seems many are still sceptical of installing the software due to fears of government mishandling.

But with hundreds of apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and our beloved UberEats already storing excessive data points on all of us, what makes COVIDSafe any different?

According to Julian Plummer, head of strategy & co-founder of Midwinter financial planning software, the COVIDSafe app is much safer than many of the apps we freely hand over our data to.

“The important thing here is that app doesn’t send your location to anyone. It only records that a ‘contact’ occurred, which tells health workers to locate users to enable them to take appropriate steps,” Mr Plummer said.

“From a technical point of view, what’s quite unique about this app is that it doesn’t use ‘Location Services’ – your phone’s GPS – to track you. It uses Bluetooth, which is considered by many to be less invasive.

“Additionally, all Australians are aware, and have an existing relationship with the provider of the app. It isn’t some dodgy provider located in the Cayman Islands or off the coast of Morocco. The Australian government can largely be trusted to obey the law.

“There should also be increased confidence that the government won’t install other freeware-type games or ancillary applications along with the COVIDSafe app.”

Millions of Australians are already using apps that track and store location patterns.

Is COVIDSafe any safer than other apps that store data?

Data selling and storage is a growing concern for many Australians, but what many of us don’t realise is that we have been handing over much of our data for years.

Apps like Facebook, Google Maps and Instagram can record our location patterns in order to enhance and customise advertising.

Dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble, as well as ride-share apps like Uber, Didi and Ola all require location-tracking software that is stored in order to optimise functionality.

According to The Guardian App project, many apps have also been caught selling data to third parties and data aggregation services.

“In order to gain initial access to precise data from the mobile device’s GPS sensors, the apps usually present a plausible justification relevant to the app in the Location Services permission dialog, often with little or no mention of the fact that location data will be shared with third-party entities for purposes unrelated to app operation.”

The COVIDSafe app is designed to store minimal information. Photo: Getty

Mr Plummer said the data COVIDSafe stores is very rudimentary and highlights that compared to independent apps, there is significantly less pressure for the government to capitalise on selling our data.

“It appears that the government is using Amazon Web Services to host and administrate the app, so that being the case, only the government should be able to access this,” Mr Plummer said.

“The government is also claiming they are only using Amazon’s Australian servers, so this should minimise any offshore storing of data.

“There is no way a government can go bankrupt, which means data won’t be sold off to others in case of bankruptcy and the government has a tax base to rely on revenue.

“The app appears to store a reference code, date, time, duration, name, phone number, postcode and age-range of the user on their phone.

“This information is stored on the user’s phone and is deleted if the app is deleted.”