Changes to the coronavirus-tracing app are alarming users who are threatening to ditch the health tool. But officials say the changes are not what they seem.
Changes to the coronavirus-tracing app are alarming users who are threatening to ditch the health tool. But officials say the changes are not what they seem.

COVIDSafe app’s new change leaves Aussies worried

CHANGES to the Australian Government's coronavirus-tracing app are demanding millions of existing users grant it permission to track their location, raising privacy concerns and frustration with the problem-plagued project.

The software updates to the Google Android version of the app, including one released this week, ensure it will not work unless users grant the app new permission to access their GPS data, raising red flags with users.

But a Digital Transformation Agency spokesman said the request was only to let the app work on Google's software and didn't signal the collection of new information, while an independent engineer verified the claims and said it showed there were still problems communicating details about the app.

Changes saw the COVIDSafe app demand new location access from existing users.
Changes saw the COVIDSafe app demand new location access from existing users.

The COVIDSafe app, released by the Federal Government in April as a "tool that helps identify people exposed to coronavirus," has been downloaded more than 6.8 million times and used to identify two people who tested positive to COVID-19, according to NSW Health.

But the latest two updates to the Android version of the app forced seemingly alarming changes for existing users, asking for new location information to make the app work.

Users responded with angry reviews, with one user writing there was "fat chance" they would grant the app access to GPS data, one saying she would not use it until they "fix this," and another asking why do "movements need to be tracked?"

But a spokesman for the DTA said the COVIDSafe app still did not collect location information from users, and the changes were designed to fix an issue with Bluetooth on Google-based smartphones.

"On Android devices, the activation of Bluetooth and location services in the operating system is bundled, hence the request for the user to activate location services," he said.

"The COVIDSafe app itself doesn't not use the location services feature."

Bluetooth engineer Jim Mussared, who has previously notified the DTA of problems within the Government's app, said the technical changes should have been better communicated to users and tested before they were rolled out to prevent alarm.

Rather than using "fine" location access to use Bluetooth on phones, the COVIDSafe app was now using "coarse" access with less information - an improvement Mr Mussared said he had suggested. Unfortunately, users were not warned of the change.

"I expected them to test it and, for existing users, they would just keep using the access they'd been granted," he said.

"It baffles me as to why they didn't test it. People will be confused by this. They should confirm the app doesn't do anything else that is suspicious or sinister."

The COVIDSafe app was launched in April 2020 for Apple iPhones and Google Android devices. Picture: Cordell Richardson
The COVIDSafe app was launched in April 2020 for Apple iPhones and Google Android devices. Picture: Cordell Richardson

Despite the confusion, Mr Mussared said eight out of 13 issues with the app had now been addressed, and it was functioning better than at launch.

He recommended users manually update the COVIDSafe app on their phone to ensure they could access them, however, due to a problem receiving automatic updates.

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Swinburne University social media senior lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet said the app's latest update would undoubtedly alarm some users, however, and the Government should clearly communicate what features were changing and how their information was being used.

"If this is not specifically to allow Bluetooth to function on Android phones, I would be profoundly worried," she said.

At its April launch, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the COVIDSafe app would offer the "strongest data protection both physically and in law that Australia has ever had," and promised the app would not collect location data and would purge its memory after 21 days.

But the location issue is the latest in a series of dramas for the COVIDSafe app, which reportedly cost more than $2.5 million to develop, with Health Department Secretary Dr Brendan Murphy this week revealing contact tracers in Victoria had stopped using it "for a period of time" because they didn't "find value" in its information.

Originally published as COVIDSafe app's new change leaves Aussies worried


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