The COVID-19 tracer app: All you need to know before installing it
Chirag Thakkar | On 14, May 2020
The government’s new COVID-19 tracer app has become a success already, with more than 1.89 million downloads within a noticeably short time of it being presented to the public. But as the government urges Aussies to download and install it as soon as possible, people have a lot of curiosity and some hesitation regarding how it works, the chances of its success, and the nature of its use.
Let’s have a look at the basics.
How the app works
The app uses Bluetooth technology to determine if another device with the COVID-19 tracer app was within 1.5 meters of this device for 15 minutes or more. If the user of the app catches the disease, the app will inform the authorities. The app will help Aussies stay safe and avoid spreading the virus further.
There are a lot of IT experts, developers, and privacy experts that have raised alarms and concerns. The app will collect data and feed it back to the government.
Before the official launch of the app, experts had urged the Australian government to release the application’s source code. That would help independent developers take a look into how the app works and ensure it doesn’t violate the privacy of citizens. The government didn’t do that and kept postponing it.
Matthew Robbins decompiles the source code
Matthew Robbins is an IT professional with ten years of experience. He spent 8 of them developing code. He is not a privacy expert. However, he does know how apps work, the data they collect, and so on. Along with a few other developers, he decided to take a closer look at the app.
“The data they (the government) are collecting is relatively benign,” he said.
Revelations after the source code was decompiled
It was found that the app works pretty much as the government promised us it would be. It securely stores the data on your phone and shares only what it needs with the authorities (and that too, after the permission of the user). It only records signals from other devices that have the same apps installed. So far, it looks like perceptions of “will the government spying on us” is out of the question.
The app also deletes all records after 21 days. Operating on Bluetooth alone, the app does not record your location data. If you have an Android phone, however, you might get a notification to turn on location, which has nothing to do with the app and is just another quirk of this OS. Matthew recommended the app after his investigations, posting on Twitter about it.
So far, it looks like the app is not just a brilliant idea, but it works well too. It’s recommended that Australians use the app daily (make sure you keep the phone on, and the app running in the background) and always keep their Bluetooth on, especially when you’re near other people. With regular use, it will surely add on to other efforts for containing the virus outbreak.