Don’t fret about COVID app — you’ve already lost your privacy

Social isolation asks a lot of us all. 

Is wearing sweatpants worth the risk of being busted on a Zoom call?

Is letting your kid play non-stop iPad games okay if it helps you keep your job?

Is chocolate a breakfast food if no one can see you eat it?

And now a much more serious question: is knowing you've been exposed to a deadly virus worth handing some of your most personal information to the government?

It feels like the basis of a science fiction novel but so does 2020. 

And, after much consideration, I've decided the risk is worth it.

I've installed the COVIDSafe app and hope you will too.

I certainly didn't expect to be giving out this kind of advice. 

Since March 2018, when Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, I've been researching and writing stories about how much of our private data is harvested and used without our knowledge. Spoiler: it's a lot.

From your contacts to your private messages, every website you visit, every search you make, every draft you save, every purchase you place, the eyes of Big Data are upon you. 


Facebook leaks your data to potentially hundreds of websites and apps (my tally reached 700), and Google will happily keep a record of your movements going back years until you find the setting to make it stop. 

If you haven't taken a close look at these data-sucking applications, I'd recommend you do so.

But, just as it claims, the Government's coronavirus-tracing app is different. 

This app doesn't pinpoint your location on a map or record your movements for months at a time.

It doesn't tell websites or apps, brands or governments what you're interested in or who you've been calling. 

It smartly uses encrypted Bluetooth communications traded between smartphones to work out if you've been within 1.5m of another user for 15 minutes. 

If that user later tests positive for COVID-19, they'll be asked to upload their Bluetooth records to a central database that state health officials can access. That's when they can identify you by the details you registered with the app and you'll receive a phone call to warn about exposure to the virus.

At worst, government officials would be able to work out who you've been near, what kind of phone you use, and how strong its Bluetooth signal strength is. 

The COVIDSafe is not perfect, though, and there are still issues to address here. 

It won't work in the background on an Apple iPhone due to the way the smartphone manages multi-tasking and battery life. 

Some Government officials say there's a workaround but tests prove they have not solved the issue.

The app is not perfect but it is essential. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
The app is not perfect but it is essential. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

There are also better, safer ways to trace the virus using smartphones.

A decentralised system for this app, as proposed by several European nations, plus Apple and Google, would be more secure and would give all users more control over how much of their information was shared.

It is the gold standard of virus-tracing so far. And then there's the question of whether any of these applications will successfully prevent infection. On paper they could but real life is messier.

You could, for example, queue behind a coronavirus carrier at the supermarket and fail to contract the virus. Maybe excellent hand hygiene saved you. You'll still be asked to self-isolate for two weeks through no fault of the app. 

And if you were to sit near a coronavirus carrier on the train but opened Twitter, Instagram, email, took a phone call and wrote a note on the way to your destination, your iPhone might not register the contact.

This, again, would not be the app's fault. 

Despite these shortcomings, I installed this virus-tracing app for multiple reasons. 

Mostly, I want to protect my family.

It's full of outstanding but stubborn individuals who bring me emergency Zooper Dooper supplies when they'd be safer at home.

I also want to protect the random individuals around me from a potentially devastating illness.

No Australian wants to see hospital scenes from New York, London, or Madrid replicated here.

Plus, selfishly, I'm not keen to experience COVID-19 myself.

If people exposed to the virus can find out through this app, isolate themselves, and prevent its transmission, maybe we can all live a bit longer and shimmy back into our work clothes sooner.

Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson is the National Technology Editor for News Corp Australia's News360


Originally published as Don't fret about COVID app - you've already lost your privacy