Why large group of population can't download the coronavirus app

·4-min read

Scott Morrison has called it Australia’s ticket out of lockdown, but there’s plenty of people either unwilling or unable to download the government’s COVIDSafe coronavirus tracking app.

A new report by researchers in Tasmania has found that many older citizens are unable to download the app because it’s not compatible with their older phones.

Among 652 respondents to a University of Tasmania survey, more than a third (38 per cent) said they won’t download the app due to privacy reasons and lack of trust in how the Federal Government will use the data, and 15 per cent said they couldn’t because their phones are out of date, incompatible or have no space for the app.

It remains to be seen how helpful the app proves to virus detectives. Source: AAP
It remains to be seen how helpful the app proves to virus detectives. Source: AAP

After the app launched on April 26, many Australians were quick to point out it was incompatible with their device as older phone models running on dated operating software are unable to use the COVIDSafe app.

And these technical issues add up. There are approximately 926,000 smartphones in Australia which use Google software considered too old to run the COVIDSafe app, News Corp reported.

Meanwhile iPhone users must have software no older than iOS10, which was released in September 2016.

Professor Libby Lester, Director of the Institute for Social Change at the University of Tasmania, which is conducting the ongoing survey, said that many respondents cited examples of government data privacy and security breaches as justification for continuing to use Google while refusing to download the COVIDSafe app.

People with older devices are finding they can't download the app. Source: Getty
People with older devices are finding they can't download the app. Source: Getty

“While the age range of respondents saying they will not download the app is between 25 and 84 years, it is largely older people who say they cannot because of their phones,” she said.

“We do need to understand this better, particularly if it is those in the community most vulnerable to COVID-19 who are not able to access the app.”

About one in 10 smartphones in Australian are too old to use the app, and as Opposition politicians have pointed out, they are most likely to be owned by people most at risk from the virus.

Software developer Geoff Huntley has led volunteer efforts over the past week to examine the COVIDSafe app and identify issues with the aim of helping the government improve it.

Mr Huntley points to hundreds of reviews in the Google and Apple app stores where people complain they haven't been able to register.

More than 5.1 million have downloaded the app so far however the truly meaningful number is daily active users.

“I think the amount of downloads is a BS vanity metric and what we should be looking at is some sort of daily active users (figure),” he told AAP earlier this week.

Officials concede app performance is 'highly variable'

Government officials have conceded the performance of their coronavirus contact tracing software is "highly variable" but insist it will still help health authorities.

Over the past week, the tech community has examined the app's code and have identified a number of functional and privacy issues.

Digital Transformation Agency head Randall Brugeaud admitted to a Senate committee hearing Wednesday the app still faces a number of challenges.

He conceded its performance on iPhones progressively deteriorates when the device is locked and the app is running in the background.

The Australian Government's new voluntary coronavirus tracing app 'COVIDSafe' is seen on a mobile phone. Source: AAP
The Australian Government's new voluntary coronavirus tracing app 'COVIDSafe' is seen on a mobile phone. Source: AAP

"There will be circumstances where the app does not capture a Bluetooth handshake," he said. Nevertheless, he insisted COVIDSafe works, Apple users just had to keep their phones unlocked.

"Within a fortnight or thereabouts - it depends on the timing of the Apple Bluetooth release - the performance will be as good in locked phones as it is in unlocked phones," he said.

App a ‘false sense of security’

As well as describing it as the ticket out of lockdown, Mr Morrison has repeatedly likened the COVIDSafe app to sunscreen – a metaphor that has left some in the cyber security community a tad puzzled while others say the analogy could lead to a false sense of security.

Speaking to the ABC, professor Adam Dunn, a biomedical informatics and digital health expert at the University of Sydney, said the government’s message could prove misleading.

“It's all about a false sense of security … if we all download the app, then we can go and watch some sports together, or if we all download the app, then I don't need to stand 1.5 metres away from people,” he said.

“But there is nothing about having the app that will protect anyone.”

with AAP

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