Australia Joins Nations Tracking Possible COVID-19 Patients Via Mobile App

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Two women holding their their smartphones
Two women holding their their smartphones in a restaurant. Photo: 7shifts / Unsplash

Australia has jumped on the bandwagon of tracking people’s movements through an app on their smartphones to identify those potentially infected with the coronavirus. South Korea, China, Taiwan and Israel have similar practices in place, leading privacy advocates to raise alarms.

The country has announced that it is rolling out its “contact tracing” app in the coming weeks. It is meant to determine every individual who has interacted with a confirmed coronavirus patient in the previous weeks, using location data on smartphones.

With its Bluetooth technology, the software records whoever came close to a diagnosed person if both users installed the app on their phone and turned on Bluetooth.

Two phones exchange IDs that are not tied to the owners’ names or identities when they stay within 1.5 meters proximity for at least 15 minutes. The data will be removed after 21 days.

After a user is diagnosed, the people who had been in contact with them in the past two weeks would be notified.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison assured the public that the use of the cell phone app will be based on user consent, adding that it was his Plan A and that “he really wanted Plan A to work.”

The app is based on a similar one currently used in Singapore, named TraceTogether, according to Morrison. Singapore’s TraceTogether collects users’ phone numbers, but does not record location.

The country’s government is hoping to use the app as a tool that would help relax lockdowns and other measures against the spread of the coronavirus by effectively detecting possible positive cases. However, privacy groups have been criticizing the move, regarding it as a violation of rights.

Researchers note that at least 40 percent of the population must opt for using the app in order for it to be successful.

Australia has reported over 6,000 infections and 65 deaths from the coronavirus so far.

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