Australia’s Response to COVID-19: Apps, privacy, and prospects


Elliott Mann - [email protected], APIGA 2019, IGF Youth Ambassador

Hey Siri, read me the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) 

Hi everyone, Elliott here from Australia. You may know me from greatest hits such as my list of Netflix Isolation Essentials, and those times that people keep letting me into Internet Governance events. You can catch me tweeting about law, technology, and bad economic theory at @e_mannAU.

Australia’s Response to COVID-19: Apps, privacy, and prospects

State of Play

Here is the current state of play with COVID-19 in Australia. As of the afternoon of 1 May, a total of 6,767 cases have been reported in Australia, including 93 deaths and 5,745 recoveries. Over the past week, an average of 12 new cases have been reported each day. This represents an overall decline in cases, and the consensus is that we have this under control.

In terms of preventative measures against the broader pandemic, on 20 March Australia closed its borders to all non-residents and non-Australian citizens; and on 22 March closed all places of social gathering including bars, gyms, restaurants, and cafes (apart from takeaways). Since then, we’ve all been hunkered down at home, binging Netflix, walking the dog, and gleefully watching daily Government press conferences (which indeed, Andrew does not run).  

Naturally with Australia in lockdown, and COVID-19 quickly coming under control, the next question is how we come out of this and prevent any further ‘spikes’ in infection rates as the economy reopens. Well, this is where technology comes into play!


The Australian Government has released a ‘COVIDSafe’ app, which uses Bluetooth signals to determine when app users are near each other. If a user of the app is diagnosed with COVID-19, they will be asked to upload all their recorded contacts through the app to a government server. From that point, health authorities in our states and territories will then contact those people and determine if they need to be tested or go into quarantine. The goal of the app is to speed up the ‘contact tracing’ of people diagnosed with COVID-19, and quickly stamp down on any further outbreaks. 

Credit: Australian Government Department of Health

The Australian app is based off of Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which around 17% of Singapore’s population have downloaded. In Australia, our Health Minister has made using the COVIDSafe app a key component of us coming out of lockdown, saying the Government wants 40% of Australians installing the app as a prerequisite of loosening lockdown restrictions. 

But should we? The Australian Government does not have a good track record with digital issues, for example passing an ‘anti-encryption’ bill in 2018 – granting the government unprecedented powers to force companies to install backdoors into their software without notifying users. People’s trust in the Government to handle their data has plummeted over the last couple of years, according to a report by Deloitte Australia

In announcing to Australia that they were trying to get everyone to use an app which would collect personal information (name, phone number, close contacts), the Government were faced with what some thought was an insurmountable mountain to climb in terms of public opinion. 

A New Hope

But! The Government has risen to the occasion and has developed an app which may truly be worthy of a coveted spot on the home screen of Australia’s phones. The Government made three promises when publishing the app:

  1. They would release the source code.
  2. They would release the Privacy Impact Assessment.
  3. They would implement specific legislation to protect data collected through the app. 

At the time of writing, there is no publicly accessible source code for the app. Naturally, this is disappointing – but the Government claims that it has to be approved by our cybersecurity agency before release, so it’s still on the way. Mike Cannon-Brookes (founder of Atlassian) is also confident the source code will be released.  In the meantime, some Android developers have decompiled that version of the app, and have reported that it does exactly what it says on the tin and isn’t collecting anything extra. 

The Privacy Impact Assessment has been duly released, and it’s a whopper. At 78 pages long, it’s one of the most comprehensive Privacy Impact Assessments I’ve seen, and Maddocks, the law firm contracted to undertake it, really did dive into the technical details of the app in seeing how it fulfills a ‘privacy by design’ approach. The Health Department have also released their response

And for specific legislation, our Parliament is currently shutdown – but will be back in May, when hopefully COVIDSafe legislation will be passed. In the interim, the Health Minister has made a declaration under the Biosecurity Act, making it clear that app data is only to be used by a State or Territory health authority for the purpose of contact tracing. 

Ultimately, these safeguards have put the minds of many people to ease. However, questions still need to be answered about the hosting of app data using Amazon Web Services (leaving the data potentially within the reach of the US Government through the CLOUD Act – the Australian Government says that the CLOUD Act cannot operate if foreign law makes collection of data illegal), and whether the government will follow through on their promise and delete all collected data at the end of the COVID-19 crisis.

On a personal note, there is clearly a balance to be struck here. I constantly complain about how bad the Australian Government is with technology, but it is also incumbent on me to recognise when they have done something right. The COVIDSafe app is one such time. I am comfortable with the safeguards they have laid out, and above all, I want to be part of the national effort to beat COVID-19 and prevent this crisis from getting any worse.

So, I have installed the app, and I would happily help anyone else to understand why they should too.

A Short View Back to the Past

So, what does Australia’s approach with this app tell us about how the internet and technology is being used to fight COVID-19? In my view, the use of the COVIDSafe app as a key pillar of Australia’s plan to bring us out of lockdown, cements this current crisis as one which exists in a digital age. 

Nearly 100 years ago, the world was going through a remarkably similar crisis with the Spanish Flu, and even just over a decade ago, with the H1N1 Swine Flu. In neither of those times could we rely on everyone having smartphones, and technology could not be leveraged to quickly easily contact trace new outbreaks of the virus. 

In Australia, we are making the most of the technologies we have and are solely focused on bringing everyone and everything out of this crisis. Here, that manifests itself as an app – and we are all hoping it works.

Author BIO

Elliott Mann

Elliott Mann

Elliott is an undergraduate student, interested in the areas of privacy and data protection, particularly in developing and emerging economies. Attended ICANN64 as NextGen, APIGA Fellow and IGF Youth Ambassador.

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