Australians urged to stick with COVIDSafe app

Australians have been urged not to give up on the $5 million COVIDSafe app despite criticism of its effectiveness and privacy fears sparked by moves overseas to give police access to tracing app data.

The Singapore government this week announced police would have access to data from its contact tracing app, which it initially vowed would be used only to find coronavirus cases.

The government unveiled the COVIDSafe app in April with high expectations.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Despite criticising the Morrison government's rollout of the app, Labor's spokesman for cyber security, Tim Watts, backed COVIDSafe's privacy protections and said people should download it and keep it up to date.

Access to COVIDSafe data is strictly limited to health purposes under the legislation that underpinned its creation.

Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, has continued to recommend Australians download the app throughout the most recent wave of cases.

The app was built to help assist state and territory contact-tracing teams uncover close contacts of infected COVID-19 cases who may have been within 1.5 metres of them for more than 15 minutes in public places such as restaurants, cafes or shops.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison spruiked the app as the country's "ticket" to relaxing restrictions when it was launched in April but critics say it has detected only a small number of case contacts that weren't also identified through manual tracing.

The government has rejected criticism of the app, which was upgraded late last year and has been downloaded almost 7.3 million times, noting it helped find two coronavirus cases in NSW earlier in the pandemic.

A spokesman for Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said on Friday: "All Australians are encouraged to continue to download, register and update the COVIDSafe app as it remains an important tool in Australia’s toolkit, working hand in hand with our public health official contact tracers."

But Mr Watts said Australians had been "sold a pup".



"The Prime Minister spent more time marketing this app than getting it to work," he said. "He plugged it 73 times … when it was being rolled out."

Many people probably had not updated the app, rendering it largely ineffective, Mr Watts said.

Independent senator Rex Patrick, who scrutinised the app in the Parliament's coronavirus committee, said the app had been "noticeable by its absence" in government press conferences on recent outbreaks.

He noted other measures including QR codes and even loyalty cards were being used to identify coronavirus cases but said any removal of the app was a question for the government.

"If it's not effective, then they should just say so and advise people to remove it from their phones," Senator Patrick said.

Other countries have adopted a tracing app model developed by Google and Apple that initially worked more reliably than COVIDSafe because it has deeper access to Apple and Android phone systems. However, it does not automatically link up with health authorities.

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