How does the government's new coronavirus app work?

Nadine Carroll
·5-min read

More than one million Australians downloaded the COVID-19 tracer app within hours of its launch on Sunday evening and health authorities are expecting more than half the country to sign up.

Named COVIDsafe, the voluntary app has been backed by doctors, nursing, business and banking groups and aims to help health officials identify people who may have come in to contact with someone with the virus.

But how does the app work? And will it help bring Australia back to ‘normal’?

How does COVIDsafe work?

The COVID-19 tracer app COVIDsafe on a mobile phone
More than one million Australians downloaded the COVID-19 tracer app within hours of its launch. Source: Getty/AAP

After downloading the app, the first thing you will be asked is ‘Do you want to help?’

The app explains that it will securely note any close contact you have with other users of the app, this information will be used by State and Territory health officials to contact you if you have been in close contact with someone who tested positive to coronavirus.

After explaining the details of the app, you will be asked to consent to two questions before registering.

Do you consent to the Australian Department of Health collecting your registration information, and collecting your contact information if another COVIDsafe user that you have come into close contact with tests positive for coronavirus.

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The user will be asked to enter a full name, age range, postcode and confirm their mobile number.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australians don’t have to enter their real name “Yes - that’s legally available”.

"Obviously it's better, I think, if it's exactly who you are. But above all else we want to be able to be in contact, for the state health officials to be in contact,” Mr Hunt said.

Finally, the app will ask for permission to turn on Bluetooth and notifications.

How does COVIDsafe track you?

People wearing masks and using mobile phones
It's hoped that using the app will speed the process up of easing restrictions. Source: Getty

The app is based on Singapore's Tracetogether software, which records the Bluetooth connections a phone makes with others so the user can give that data to state health authorities if they catch the virus.

Every instance you are in close contact with another COVIDsafe user is noted on your phone and the other user’s phone but with an anonymous ID attached to each user.

‘Close contact’ is determined as being within 1.5 metres of someone for more than 15 minutes.

Where does the data go?

All data will stay on your phone, and the other user’s phone for up to 21 days and is then destroyed.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you can be asked for your consent to upload your contact information so health officials can then contact other CODIVDsafe users you have been in close contact with.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said only health authorities would have access to the data.

"No other government agency can use this information, no one in the Commonwealth government at all, and in state authorities, only the health officer can use it," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"Not the police, not the welfare people, nowhere else. Just the health officer."

Are there privacy concerns?

The app states it will not collect your location information and information you submit is stored on a highly secure server.

Each time you come into close contact with another user of the app, the time will be noted and an anonymous ID will be used on the other users phone.

Your registration details can only be used for contact tracing

Greg Hunt introducing the COVIDsafe tracing app.
'Above all else we want to be able to be in contact' Greg Hunt said. Source: AAP

Those under 16 will need a parent or guardian’s permission to download the app.

Australian Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said safeguards were in place to protect personal information collected via the app, and her office would watch its implementation closely.

"We can audit the system and investigate complaints from the public about privacy issues," the commissioner said.

Could the COVIDsafe app end restrictions?

Victoria Police Protective Services Officers speak to a man at St Kilda beach in Melbourne, Monday, April 13, 2020. Victoria Police issued 433 fines between 11:00pm on Thursday and 11:00pm on Easter Sunday after conducting thousands of spot checks across the state. A shutdown of non-essential services is in effect Australia wide in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease.(AAP Image/Scott Barbour) NO ARCHIVING
'The more Australians who download the app the safer we will all be and the more quickly we can begin to ease restrictions'. Source: AAP

The government hopes a broader testing regime and the contact tracing app will lead to a relaxation of social and trading restrictions imposed since the pandemic began, earlier rather than later.

"It's another tool we need to get back to normal as much as we can," Mr Morrison said.

Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone said the app was an important part of Australia's response to the pandemic.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott urged all Australians to download the app.

"The more Australians who download the app the safer we will all be and the more quickly we can begin to ease restrictions," she said.

- with AAP

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