Victorian contact tracers could be forced to pull mobile phone GPS data to zero-in on the movements of known coronavirus cases – the job the COVIDSafe app was supposed to do.
The government has been largely silent on the app in the past six months, a sure sign of trying to cover up its failure, tech experts say.
On Wednesday, Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said authorities would consider requesting phone GPS records and work logs if they suspected people were being dishonest with contact tracers.
“If we have to interrogate phones for GPS information, those powers are available,” Professor Sutton told reporters.
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His warning followed revelations a truck driver who tested positive to COVID-19 did not inform contact tracers he had been to Shepparton until a fortnight after his visit.
The regional city is now battling a small coronavirus cluster, with locals rushing to get swabbed at overwhelmed testing clinics.
Local cafe owner, Leanne Stride of Lemon Tree Cafe, has been praised for her meticulous record-keeping of customers, making it easier for contact tracers to find out who else might be infected.
Real MVP this week is Leanne Stride, owner of Lemon Tree Cafe, who kept all the records of customers in Shepparton who attended her cafe, and posted Facebook updates re: DHHS advice.
We need to support businesses with a system to make record keeping convenient. #covid19aus
— Dr Vyom Sharma (@drvyom) October 14, 2020
Many Victorians have congratulated Ms Stride for doing her bit to fight the virus.
But it is not the sole responsibility of business owners to track coronavirus cases.
Don’t we have an app for that?
Nearly six months has passed since the federal government introduced its COVIDSafe contact tracing app, touting it as a “critical tool” in the fight against the coronavirus.
The app, which uses Bluetooth technology to quickly alert users who may have had contact with a positive case, was promoted to us as essential to lifting lockdown restrictions.
And yet the app has largely disappeared from view, and Melburnians continue to endure a brutal lockdown.
So what’s going on?
Unlike many Australians, the federal government hasn’t forgotten about the COVIDSafe app.
Ritesh Chugh, a senior lecturer in information systems at CQUniversity, said external spending aimed at improving the technology had recently surpassed a staggering $5 million.
While the government is working hard to improve the app, it needs to do a better job of reminding people how to use it properly, he said.
“You can download (the app) but if you’re not using it, there’s no point,” Dr Chugh told The New Daily.
“We take our face masks when we walk outside the home, but how many of you are turning on our COVIDSafe app?
“Masks are being mandated, and I think we should make the COVIDSafe app mandatory as well.”
But Professor Katina Michael, a public interest technology advocate at the University of Wollongong, said the federal government’s silence was intentional.
“It’s a deliberate cover-up that its not working,” she said.
“(The app) had bugs to begin with that were never ironed out, it went to market really quickly and there was not enough testing or validation.
“We got the message: ‘Keep downloading Australia and everything will be fine’ – but that hasn’t happened.”
Is GPS tracking the way forward?
Some countries are already doing it, but there are privacy concerns.
Professor Michael said India and China were among a growing number of countries using GPS data in their contacting tracing apps.
“With Bluetooth, it gives a relative position but it doesn’t say exactly where you are,” she said.
“But with GPS, you can identify pretty accurately that you were at this location at this time.”
However, Dr Chugh said it was unlikely Australians would accept this level of monitoring by the government.
“Already, people are reluctant to use the COVIDSafe app because of privacy concerns,” he said.
To get around this, Professor Michael suggested Australia could enhance COVIDSafe by adopting a “fuzzy level of location determination”, which logs a general location at intervals instead of a specific coordinate.
“I’m not a proponent of determining one’s location precisely,” she said.
“What would be great is if you’re obfuscating exactly where that person was in the last 30 minutes, like tracing breadcrumbs throughout the day.
“It’s enough to know that someone was in the vicinity, like a local town. That’s really what you need because a confirmed case will tell you ‘I was at the bakery or the library’ so contact tracers can step in.”
Meanwhile, Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell said Shepparton’s Lemon Tree Cafe was a “really great example of the innovation of small businesses”.
“It’s happening right across Australia,” Ms Carnell told The New Daily.
“It shows why small businesses are the engine room of the economy – because they’re flexible, they move quickly and they do what has to be done.”