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Using Technology during COVID-19

In the first 24 hours of its release, we have seen over a million Australians download the COVIDSafe app – a technology used for contact tracing. However, many people have expressed concerns about how this technology works and what it means for their personal data and privacy.

As always, it is important that our communities stay informed as they continue to make decisions to look after their health and wellbeing.

What is contact tracing?
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Contact tracing is the practice of finding out from someone who has been diagnosed with an infectious illness, who they might have been in contact with recently. The people they’ve been in contact with are then notified that they may have been exposed to the disease. They are encouraged to get tested and take additional steps to prevent further spread of the infection. Contact tracing is one of the cornerstones of preventative health and has been used in a variety of settings – including HIV.

Contact tracing works best when the recently diagnosed individual is able to recount everyone they have been in contact with. For a sexually transmitted infection, an individual needs to recall everyone that they’ve recently had sexual contact with. However, with COVID-19 this includes anyone you’ve been within close proximity of for more than 15 minutes. This may include people you have stood behind at the supermarket or someone seated near you on public transport.

What does the COVIDSafe App Do?
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The COVIDSafe app assists the contact tracing process of finding people who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 without relying solely on the recall of infected individuals.

Using Bluetooth, the app records when your device is in close proximity to other devices using the app. It records the time and date – not the location.

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows for the exchange of data between devices in close proximity to one another. For example, if you’ve ever used wireless headphones or a wireless mouse – you’ve probably done this using Bluetooth technology.

The data collected by the app is then encrypted and stored on your phone.

What happens when someone is diagnosed with COVID-19?
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If someone using the COVIDSafe app is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can give permission to have the encrypted contact information from the app on their phone uploaded to a secure information storage system.

This information then allows contact tracers to notify other app users that they may have recently been exposed to the virus and the next steps they should take to prevent passing the virus on to others. This may include testing for COVID-19 and temporary self-quarantine.

If Australia is already through the worst of it, do we even need this app?
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We may not. However, as state governments start to ease restrictions, we may see the number of new COVID-19 infections increase again. This technology could help us stop new outbreaks from occurring and prevent the need to go into further periods of lockdown.

What data does it collect?
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When you download the COVIDSafe app you’re asked to provide your name, mobile number, postcode and age range. The system then creates a unique encrypted reference code – or identifier for your account. Some people have reported submitting a fake name due to privacy concerns. If you choose to do that, this will not affect the functionality of the COVIDSafe app.

While active, the app then records when you’ve been in proximity to other devices using the app.

How secure will this data be?
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The information is encrypted and stored securely on your phone. The contact information stored on your phone is deleted on a 21-day rolling cycle.

At the end of the pandemic, users will be prompted to delete the app from their phone – thereby deleting any personal data collected by the app and stored on their phone. At this stage, any information contained in the government’s information storage system will also be destroyed. Prior to that time, you can also request to have your data deleted via the Australian Government's Request Data Deletion page.

For some people the collection of data has caused concerns related to privacy and data security. While these are valid concerns generally, it needs to be remembered that, everyday people use apps and websites such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, FlyBuys, Grindr, Tinder, Google which are privately owned companies mostly based overseas. Those apps and websites collect considerably more personal data about you than the COVIDSafe app will.

The Australian Government have also released a document answering frequently asked questions (FAQ) which can bedownloaded here.

Chances are that every day you engage with technology that collects or stores personal data about you.

If you’re interested in protecting yourself online, consider checking out some of the following resources:

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