The immunisation rollout won’t start until the second quarter of 2021, and the government is encouraging New Zealanders to continue using the app, including the recently upgraded bluetooth function, as part of its plan to manage the pandemic during the holiday period.
During the past weeks, the number of daily scans has dropped significantly, down from just over 900,000 scans per day at the end of November to fewer than 400,000 in mid-December.
With no active cases of COVID-19 in the commmunity, complacency might be part of the issue in New Zealand, but as our research in the US shows, worries about privacy and trust continue to make people reluctant to use contact-tracing apps.
Concerns about privacy and surveillance
We surveyed 853 people from every state in the US to identify the factors promoting or inhibiting their use of contact-tracing applications. Our survey reveals two seemingly contradictory findings.
Individuals are highly motivated to use contact-tracing apps, for the sake of their own health and that of society as a whole. But the study also found people are concerned about privacy, social disapproval and surveillance.
The findings suggest people’s trust in the data collectors is dependent on the technology features of these apps (for example, information sensitivity and anonymity) and the privacy protection initiatives instigated by the authorities.
With the holiday season just around the corner — and even though New Zealand is currently free of community transmission — our findings are pertinent. New Zealanders will travel more during the summer period, and it is more important than ever to use contact-tracing apps to improve our chances of getting on top of any potential outbreaks as quickly as possible.
How, then, to overcome concerns about privacy and trust and make sure New Zealanders use the upgraded app during summer?
The benefits of adopting contact-tracing apps are mainly in shared public health, and it is important these societal health benefits are emphasised. In order to quell concerns, data collectors (government and businesses) must also offer assurance that people’s real identity will be concealed.
It is the responsibility of the government and the office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure all personal information is managed appropriately.
Our study also found that factors such as peer and social influence, regulatory pressures and previous experiences with privacy loss underlie people’s readiness to adopt contact-tracing apps.
The findings reveal that people expect regulatory protection if they are to use contact-tracing apps. This confirms the need for laws and regulations with strict penalties for those who collect, use, disclose or decrypt collected data for any purpose other than contact tracing.
The New Zealand government is working with third-party developers to complete the integration of other apps by the end of December to enable the exchange of digital contact-tracing information from different apps and technologies.
The Privacy Commissioner has already endorsed the bluetooth upgrade of the official NZ COVID Tracer app because of its focus on users’ privacy. And the Ministry of Health aims to release the source code for the app so New Zealanders can see how their personal data has been managed.
Throughout the summer, the government and ministry should emphasise the importance of using the contact-tracing app and assure New Zealanders about the security and privacy of their personal data.
Adoption of contact-tracing apps is no silver bullet in the battle against COVID-19, but it is a crucial element in New Zealand’s collective public health response to the global pandemic.
There is no hint of this stopping our TikToking children. For them it’s business as usual, creating and uploading videos of themselves lip-syncing, singing, dancing or just talking.
The most recent trend on TikTok – Taylor Swift Love Story dance – has resulted in more than 1.5 million video uploads in around two weeks alone.
But the latest political issues with TikTok raise questions about whether children should be on this platform right now. More broadly, as we see copycat sites such as Instagram Reels launched, should children be using any social media platforms that focus on them sharing videos of themselves at all?
The pros and cons
The TikTok app has filled a genuine social need for this young age group. Social media sites can offer a sense of belonging to a group, such as a group focused on a particular interest, experience, social group or religion.
TikTok celebrates diversity and inclusivity. It can provide a place where young people can join together to support each other in their needs.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTok has had huge numbers of videos with coronavirus-related hashtags such as #quarantine (65 billion views), #happyathome (19.5 billion views) and #safehands (5.4 billion views).
Some of these videos are funny, some include song and dance. The World Health Organisation even posted its own youth-oriented videos on TikTok to provide young people with reliable public health advice about COVID-19.
The key benefit is the platform became a place where young people joined together from all corners of the planet, to understand and take the stressful edge off the pandemic for themselves and others their age. Where else could they do that? The mental health benefits this offers can be important.
Let’s get creative
Another benefit lies in the creativity TikTok centres on. Passive use of technology, such as scrolling and checking social media with no purpose, can lead to addictive types of screen behaviours for young people.
Whereas planning and creating content, such as making their own videos, is meaningful use of technology and curbs addictive technology behaviours. In other words, if young people are going to use technology, using it creatively, purposefully and with meaning is the type of use we want to encourage.
Like all social media platforms, children are engaging in a space in which others can contact them. They may be engaging in adult concepts that they are not yet mature enough for, such as love gone wrong or suggestively twerking to songs.
The platform moves very quickly, with a huge amount of videos, likes and comments uploaded every day. Taking it all in can lead to cognitive overload. This can be distracting for children and decrease focus on other aspects of their life including schoolwork.
So here are a few tips for keeping your child safe, as well as getting the most out of the creative/educational aspects of TikTok.
as with any social network, use privacy settings to limit how much information your child is sharing
if your child is creating a video, make sure it is reviewed before it’s uploaded to ensure it doesn’t include content that can be misconstrued or have negative implications
In response, a deal is being negotiated between TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and US software giant Microsoft. If successful, Microsoft will take over the app’s operations in the US and potentially also in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
A US ban would not be unprecedented. India barred TikTok last month, alongside dozens of other Chinese-owned apps and websites.
… continuing dialogue with the United States government, including with the president.
Moving ownership to a US company could help address concerns surrounding the perceived influence of the Chinese government over TikTok. But there will need to be strong oversight to ensure existing user data is transferred entirely to Microsoft’s control.
While Microsoft has pledged to ensure TikTok data are deleted “from servers outside the country after it is transferred” – it would be difficult to prove copies had not been made before control was handed over.
TikTok won’t be alone though – Facebook and Twitter are both due to attend. It is, however, unlikely the Microsoft acquisition will have much influence on the proceedings as the deal is still in the early days of discussion.
Microsoft’s acquisition may introduce fresh concerns about the US government’s influence over TikTok. Although, this is perhaps more politically palatable than potential Chinese government influence over the app – given the Chinese Communist Party’s unsavoury record of privacy abuses.
Perhaps the only winner from the deal would be ByteDance itself. A product that is increasingly disliked by foreign governments will only become harder to sell with time. It would make sense for ByteDance to cash out its asset sooner rather than later.
The deal would also likely earn it a significant payout, given TikTok’s millions of users.
Despite ongoing allegations, there is no solid evidence of a threat to either national security or personal data from using TikTok. Many of the concerns hinge on data sovereignty – specifically, where data are stored and who can use and access them.
TikTok has responded to allegations by stating its user data are not stored in China and are not subject to Chinese government influence or access.
That said, while TikTok user data may well be stored outside China, it is unclear whether the Chinese government has already secured access, or will seek to do so later through legal channels.
There are, however, other potential issues that may be driving the US’s concerns.
For instance, in 2018 an unexpected consequence of sharing fitness tracker data through the Strava website inadvertently revealed the locations of secret US military bases.
Thus, services such as TikTok which are meant to be relatively benign (if used ethically) can, under certain circumstances, present unexpected threats to national security. This may explain why Australia’s defence forces have banned the app.
A number of TikTok users reserved tickets to the Trump rally and didn’t show up, as a protest against the president. The rally saw only a few thousand supporters attend, out of hundreds of thousands of allocated tickets.
TikTok, the made-in-China, video-sharing platform beloved by youth and influencers alike, is suddenly everywhere in our new world of COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing.
The platform’s growth has been tremendous, but this has come at a cost: it has come under increasing scrutiny from politicians in the US and allies like Australia over concerns about potential breaches of data security and the platform’s perceived ties to the Chinese government.
There are some reasons to be concerned. The platform is known to censor material deemed sensitive by the Chinese government.
Last year, for example, TikTok was accused of manipulating videos relating to Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and was forced to apologise for censoring a video criticising China’s crackdown on Uyghurs. This prompted claims of it being an arm of China’s state-run media system.
Digital security experts also point to the potential for the data TikTok collects from users to be sent to China’s servers.
But there is not clear evidence yet that TikTok poses a threat to the national security of countries like the US or Australia, or that the CCP interferes in the overseas operations of the company.
TikTok’s physical distancing from Beijing
TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based technology company Bytedance, which also operates a Chinese version of the platform called Douyin.
TikTok and Douyin are completely separate entities. They store their data in different centres and are governed by different sets of rules and business operations. TikTok is designed for the overseas market with its data stored in Singapore and the US, while Douyin targets solely the Chinese domestic market with its data stored in China.
As the pressure has mounted against the platform in the West, however, TikTok has shifted into survival mode through de-Sinicization. While users are posting videos on TikTok from the safety of their bedrooms, the company is deliberately distancing itself from Beijing.
Part of this distancing strategy involves announcing plans to move its operational headquarters outside China. According to industry reports in China this involved disbanding the Beijing-based overseas operation team, as well as cutting off the Chinese team’s access to its international data pool.
TikTok’s most prominent PR move has been hiring key international players in communications, entertainment, government relations, IP protection, cybersecurity and global business solutions to change the way the company is structured and run in its overseas markets.
The appointment of non-Chinese executives, such as new US CEO Kevin Mayer (Walt Disney’s former top streaming executive), illustrates its global aspirations.
Of course, bringing foreigners into the corporate tent is not a new strategy for a Chinese tech firm. Alibaba and Huawei have done this with mixed success; Huawei, in particular, has failed to convince Western governments it would not pose a security risk to their 5G networks.
But TikTok is a different kind of proposition. Unlike other Chinese tech companies and platforms (such as WeChat), TikTok does not operate in China. The platform was created to be global.
TikTok and tit-for-tat retaliations
The response to TikTok’s rise in the US comes from the Donald Trump manual of political strategy. When the trade war between the US and China broke in January 2018, the two nations engaged in a tit-for-tat series of tariffs, from steel and automobiles to pork and soybeans.
In the latest round of recriminations and political bluster, Trump suggested he was considering using TikTok as a way to retaliate against China for its handling of the coronavirus. The idea is to erect a barrier against TikTok and ask like-minded allies to do the same.
What this reaction precipitates, however, is a move toward national internet sovereignty. Some are calling this the age of the “splinternet”, rather than the internet as we know it, a borderless space.
For starters, erecting barriers against platforms offers limited effectiveness because users will find a way around them.
But banning TikTok, or any other Chinese platform, is also taking a page directly from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “little red book” for the digital age.
The list of Western platforms and news sites now blocked in China is very long. Playing China’s game of shuttering foreign sites will only provide more ammunition for Chinese propaganda against the West – and lead to more tit-for-tat closures.
Blacklisting companies or individuals based on country of origin and citing national security concerns sets a dangerous precedent. It’s akin to going down the path of digital McCarthyism; not only will this erode online freedom, it won’t address the more significant problems of data harvesting and news manipulation — practices that are not unique to Chinese platforms.
Some critics have instead argued for more coordinated global governance of tech companies. As Samm Sacks writes in Foreign Affairs,
we need stricter rules for data security and privacy for all companies, not just Chinese ones … regardless of country of origin, [to] manage online content in an era of misinformation.
As with all user-driven platforms, content moderation on TikTok runs up against issues of freedom of speech. Censorship will continue be a concern for the platform, and TikTok’s content moderators will inevitably be tested by those who want to use it to challenge China.
In the interest of maintaining its brand credibility as a truly global company, TikTok’s smartest move would be to continue to distance itself from Beijing — and for Beijing to do the same.
In an age of isolation, video sharing platform TikTok has emerged as a bonding force for many. But recent headlines allege the service, owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, is feeding users’ data to the Chinese Communist Party.
Earlier this week, the Herald Sun reported an unnamed federal MP was pushing for the app to be banned.
Following suit, Liberal senator Jim Molan said TikTok was being “used and abused” by the Chinese government, while Labor senator Jenny McAllister called on TikTok’s representatives to face the Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media.
TikTok has denied the accusations and rebuffed suggestions it should be banned in Australia.
Simply, users generate short videos that are shared in the app, with many celebrities also signing up. But although TikTok seems to offer carefree entertainment, is there a darker side?
What information is collected?
When installed, TikTok asks users to grant several permissions, including the use of the camera, microphone and contact list. However, it may also collect location data, along with information from other apps on the device.
Last year, a proposed class action lawsuitfiled against TikTok in California claimed the company gathered users’ data, including phone numbers, emails, location, IP addresses, and social network contacts.
The lawsuit also stated TikTok concealed the transfer of data (including biometric data), and continued to harvest it even after the app was closed. This would mean when a user shoots a video and clicks the “next” button, the video could be automatically transferred to servers – without the user’s knowledge.
While TikTok’s headquarters are in Beijing, Australian general manager Lee Hunter recently claimed Australian users’ data was stored in Singapore.
A major challenge in sorting the truth from fiction lies in how we define “data”. While TikTok users’ details and videos may be stored in Singapore, there’s still potential for data to be extracted from this video content and the device and sent to China’s servers (although this hasn’t been proven to have happened).
Hypothetically, it would then be possible for Chinese authorities to use biometric data to identify people using facial recognition. It would also be possible to map rooms and locations by using “feature extraction” (a machine learning method) on videos.
This could then aid the creation of new, advanced deepfake videos potentially targeting specific people.
While this may seem far-fetched, there have already been preemptive TikTok bans within major organisations to ensure sensitive information isn’t leaked.
ByteDance claims its data is stored in servers in the US and Singapore:
Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.
You should understand that no data storage system or transmission of data over the Internet or any other public network can be guaranteed to be 100% secure.
From a user privacy perspective, TikTok has access to a device’s location and a user’s personal information. Although TikTok’s servers may be located outside China, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to confirm where this data could end up, or what it could be used for.
While the location of servers can be important, possession of data is more relevant. Once data is obtained, it can be used. If data is stored on a server in Australia, for instance, Australian jurisdiction applies. But once it is sent to another country, that country’s laws take precedent.
And if a TikTok user decides to delete their content from their device, or if there is a government-imposed ban, data can’t be retrospectively erased. Once information is transferred, it’s impossible to retract without the cooperation of the organisation or agency concerned (in this case, TikTok).
Can the government actually ban TikTok?
The fact is, enforcing an Australia-wide ban on TikTok isn’t a simple prospect. While the federal government could request the app’s removal from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, it could only do this for Australian regions and marketplaces.
Users in Australia would still be able to download TikTok from another region’s store, or via a third-party source. Also, banning the app won’t automatically remove it from devices on which it is already installed.
Blocking access to TikTok’s servers would be done in conjunction with internet service providers (such as Telstra and Optus), as they can block access to apps and websites. But users could still use proxies or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent these controls.
And even if TikTok was banned, citizen data already handed over would remain stored, and could be accessed for the foreseeable future.
Australia has ruled out abandoning the government’s COVIDSafe contact tracing app in favour of the rival “Gapple” model developed by Google and Apple, which is gaining widespread support around the world. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth told The Project the COVIDSafe app was “a great platform”.
In the two months since its launch, COVIDSafe has been downloaded just over 6.4 million times – well short of the government’s target of 40% of the Australian population.
Its adoption was plagued by privacy, security and backwards compatibility concerns, and further exacerbated by excessive battery consumption. And despite being described as a vital tool in the response to COVID-19, it is reportedly yet to identify a single infection that hadn’t already been tracked down by manual contact tracing.
It seems the app has failed to win the public’s trust. Software downloads are based on the perceptions of risk and anticipated benefits. In this scenario, the risks appear to outweigh the benefits, despite the dangers of a second coronavirus wave taking hold in our second most populous city.
COVID-19 cases in Melbourne continue to surge. But more broadly, the relatively low number of overall cases in Australia and the lack of adequate buy-in among the public make it difficult for COVIDSafe to make a meaningful contribution.
Is there another way?
Some 91% of Australians have a smartphone, whereas a rough calculation based on the 6.4 million downloads suggests only 28% have downloaded COVIDSafe.
For digital contact tracing to be effective, an uptake of around 60% of the population has been suggested – well beyond even the 40% target which COVIDSafe failed to hit.
The logic is straightforward: we need a system that 60% of people are willing and able to use. And such a system already exists.
Gapple is not an app itself, but a framework that provides Bluetooth-based functionality by which contact tracing can work. Crucially, it has several features that lend it more privacy than COVIDSafe.
In simple terms, it allows Android and iOS (Apple) devices to communicate with one another using existing apps from health authorities, using a contact-tracing system built into the phones’ operating systems.
Gapple’s decentralised exposure notification system offers more privacy and security than many other contact-tracing technologies, because:
it does not collect or track device location
data is collected on the users’ phones rather than a centralised server
it does not share users’ identities with other people, Apple or Google
health authorities do not have direct access to the data
users can continue to use the public health authority’s app without opting into the Gapple exposure notifications, and can turn the notification system off if they change their mind.
The system meets many of the basic principles of the American Civil Liberties Union’s criteria for technology-assisted contact tracing. And its exposure notification settings appear in recent updates of both Android and iOS devices. But without an app that uses the Gapple framework, the exposure notification system cannot be used.
Gapple going global
Global support for the Gapple model is growing. The United Kingdom, many parts of the United States, Switzerland, Latvia, Italy, Canada and Germany are abandoning their native contact-tracing technologies in favour of a model that could achieve much more widespread adoption worldwide.
The ease of communication between different devices will also make Gapple a crucial part of international contact tracing once borders are reopened in the future, and people start to travel.
In this light, it is hard to see why Australia resisted the calls to ditch COVIDSafe and adopt the Gapple model.
Can Australians use Gapple anyway?
No, they can’t, because the Gapple model requires users to download a native app from their region’s public health authority which uses the Gapple exposure notification system. Australia’s decision means that won’t be happening here any time soon.
In grappling with the dilemma between citizens’ civil rights and curbing the growth of the fatal COVID-19 virus, the Gapple model is a trade-off to encourage higher uptake of contact-tracing technologies.
Ultimately, the Gapple model will be a step forward in the world’s fight against COVID-19, because it will encourage significant numbers of people to use it.
The decision to persist with the COVIDSafe app, rather than adopting an emerging global model, could have severe repercussions for Australians. For any digital contact-tracing technology to work effectively, a large number of people must use it, and COVIDSafe has fallen short of that basic requirement.
The Australian government’s contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe, has been touted as crucial for restarting the country’s economy and curbing COVID-19’s spread.
But until more data are collected, it’s hard to estimate how effective the app will be. Nonetheless, there are some predictable situations in which COVIDSafe’s design may mean it will struggle to fulfil its purpose.
COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth to digitally “trace” people with whom a user has come into contact, with the aim of alerting anyone who has interacted with a confirmed COVID-19 case. But this technology carries a risk of “false positives”, wherein a user may be falsely alerted despite not actually having come into contact with the virus.
This is because Bluetooth radio waves pass through walls and glass. They can only measure how physically close two people are; they can’t tell whether those people are in the same room, in different rooms, or even in different cars passing each other.
In a high-density apartment building, depending on the strength of Bluetooth signals, it’s possible COVIDSafe could falsely alert plenty of people.
The Department of Health has acknowledged this complication, saying:
If this happens and one of the contacts is identified as having coronavirus, state and territory health officials will talk to the people to work out if this was a legitimate contact or not.
Nonetheless, this process may cause unnecessary distress, and could also have negative flow-on effects on the economy by keeping people home unnecessarily. False positives could also erode public trust in the app’s effectiveness.
On the other side of the coin, COVIDSafe also has the potential for “false negatives”. Simply, it will not identify non-human-to-human transmission of the virus.
We know COVID-19 can survive on different surfaces for various periods of time. COVIDSafe would not be able to alert people exposed to the virus via a solid surface, such as a shopping trolley or elevator button, if the person who contaminated that surface had already left the scene.
COVIDSafe is also not helpful in the case of users who become infected with COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic. Such a person may never get tested and upload their contact data to the app’s central data store, but may still be able to pass the virus to those around them. More data is needed on asymptomatic transmission.
And regarding the decision to classify “close contacts” as people who have been within a 1.5m distance for 15 minutes – this may have been based on research from Japan for when people are in an open space, and the air is moving.
However, this research also showed micro-droplets remained suspended in the air for 20 minutes in enclosed spaces. Thus, the 1.5m for 15 minutes rule may be questionable for indoor settings.
Downloads vs usage
Recently, Iceland’s contact tracing app achieved the highest penetration of any such app in the world, with almost 40% of the population opting in. But Icelandic Police Service detective inspector Gestur Pálmason – who has overseen contact tracing efforts – said while it was useful in a few cases, the app “wasn’t a game-changer”.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said on multiple occasions COVIDSafe requires a 40% uptake to be effective.
Since then, federal health minister Greg Hunt has said there’s “no magic figure, but every set of people that download will make it easier and help”. This was echoed more recently by Department of Health acting secretary Caroline Edwards, who told a Senate committee there was no specific uptake goal within her team.
Past modelling revealed infection could be controlled if more than 70% of the population were taking the necessary precautions. It’s unclear what science (if any) was forming the basis of Australia’s initial 40% uptake goal for COVIDSafe.
This goal is also lower than proposed figures from other experts around the world, who have suggested goals varying from 50-70%, and 80% for UK smartphone owners. But the fact is, these figures are estimates and are difficult to test for accuracy.
We also know COVIDSafe doesn’t work properly on iPhones and some older model mobile phones. And older devices are more likely to be owned by those who are elderly, or less financially privileged.
What’s more, COVIDSafe can’t fulfil its contact tracing potential until it’s downloaded by a critical mass of people who have already contracted the virus. At this stage, the more people infected with COVID-19 that download the app, the better.
A tough nut to crack
Implementing a contact tracing app is a difficult task for our leaders and medical experts. This is because much remains unknown about the COVID-19 virus, and how people will continue to respond to rules as restrictions lift around the country.
It’s 18 days since the government launched its digital contact-tracing app COVIDSafe. The latest figure we have for downloads is 5.4 million, on May 8, about 29% of smartphone users aged 14 and over.
My own mini-survey suggests that in Sydney and Melbourne the takeup could already be 40% – a figure the government has mentioned as a target – while in other places it is much lower.
Oddly, it’s information the government isn’t sharing with us.
Total number of COVIDSafe app users (millions)
The importance of downloading and using the app is growing day by day as we relax restrictions. We are able to see what has happened in countries such as South Korea that have relaxed restrictions and then experienced a second wave.
5.4 million Australians after 13 days is a promising start.
As can be seen in the above graph produced by my colleague Demetris Christodoulou and me, 5.4 million downloads represents about 28.7% of Australians with smartphones.
It compares favourably to the 22.4% of Singaporeans with smartphones who downloaded their app within 13 days of its launch.
But the government is only making public a single figure indicating “total” downloads. It would be far more useful if it provided disaggregated community, city and state level data, and below, I attempt to fill the breach.
Letting us know more about which communities are downloading the app would help with health, motivation and transparency.
Knowledge about potentially-dramatic variations in where the app was being downloaded could help guide policy.
Hypothetically speaking, if 70% of Melbourne’s smartphone users had downloaded the app but only 20% of Adelaide’s users, this could have distinct implications for the ability to successfully trace COVID-19 outbreaks in the respective cities and for the right amount of easing of restrictions in each city.
It could also help residents of those cities make more informed decisions about their own safety, such as whether and how to shop and whether to wear a mask.
While COVIDSafe originally generated more than 500,000 daily downloads, the number has fallen to less than 100,000, suggesting that new efforts to motivate more downloads is urgently needed.
Providing geographical details could energise downloads in three ways.
First, people often feel enormous pride when their community steps up to help others. Knowing how well the community is doing is likely to motivate more people to help.
Second, knowing how well other communities are doing can be a powerful incentive to catch up; few people want to be in the community that isn’t doing its part.
Third, if state leaders make decisions about relaxing restrictions partly on the basis of local downloads, community members will see a direct connection between downloading the app and the freedoms that will be available to them.
The government’s appeal to download the app is built around trust.
It has asked us to trust it by downloading the app. In return it should trust us with better information.
People in Adelaide, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Geelong, the Gold Coast, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, Sydney, Townsville, Wollongong, rural communities and other places deserve access to information the government already has that could help them make better choices.
The sort of data authorities are keeping to themselves
Given the lack of transparency to date, I conducted my own online survey among 876 residents of Sydney, Melbourne and regional communities with less than 50,000 people.
My survey results, run with a sample of people using the online survey platform PureProfile, indicate the proportion of people who had downloaded the app by May 11 was 50.5% in Sydney, 44.0% in Melbourne and 36.1% in less populated communities.
Controlling for age and gender, there was no significant difference between downloads in Sydney and Melbourne. Both were significantly higher than rural communities.
Restricting the responses to people who have a mobile phone that is capable of downloading the app, the proportion of downloads increases to 53.8% in Sydney, 47.8% in Melbourne and 41.2% in less populated communities. An extra 7.2%, 6.9% and 5.7% of respondents said they would either definitely or probably download the app in the next week.
This survey evidence indicates that there are stark regional differences in the downloads, and that although the national level of downloads is about 29%, some locations such as Sydney and Melbourne may have already surpassed (or will soon supass) the 40% government stated target.
Of course the government shouldn’t rely these survey results, because it’s got the actual information. It is time it shared the detailed download information it has with us, both to reciprocate our trust and let us make more informed decisions.
In late March, we posed a hypothetical scenario to a sample of Australians, asking if they would download a contact tracing app released by the federal government; 70% responded in favour.
But a more recent survey, following the release of COVIDSafe, revealed only 44% of respondents had downloaded it.
The Australian government’s COVIDSafe app aims to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and let us all return to normal life. But this promise depends on how many Australians download and use the app. The minimum required uptake has been variously estimated at 40-60% of the population.
Our ongoing research, led by the Complex Human Data Hub of the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences, surveyed the Australian public to understand their opinions and use of the COVIDSafe app, and other possible government tracking technologies.
Our research is helping us understand the conditions under which Australians will accept these technologies, and what’s holding them back.
Is there community support for COVIDSafe?
COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth to establish an anonymous contact registry of who a user has been close to, and for how long. If that user tests positive for COVID-19, they can voluntarily upload their contact registry to a central data store accessible only by state and territory health officials. Human contact tracers then alert those at risk and advise them on appropriate isolation measures.
Gaining broad community support for COVIDsafe requires the app’s perceived public health benefits to outweigh concerns of personal privacy, security and potential risk of harm.
As of May 7, from a sample of 536 survey participants, 44% reported having downloaded the COVIDSafe app. Promisingly, another 17% said they had not, but planned to.
We also asked all our respondents what technology they thought COVIDSafe used. Only 60% correctly responded with “Bluetooth”. Others responded with “location data” (19%), “mobile phone towers” (5%), or that they did not know (16%). This breakdown differed between people who had downloaded the app and those who had not, as shown below.
Why are people opting in?
For those who downloaded COVIDSafe, most reported doing so to monitor others’ health (28%), their own health (19%), and in the hope of returning to normal activities sooner (18%). The least motivating factor was “to help the economy” (14%).
Most people who had not downloaded the app said they were weighing the pros and cons (22%), had not had time (19%) or had technical issues (12%). A small number were waiting for legislation that stipulated how the data could be used (6%).
This may be good news for the government, as many of these reasons are relatively straightforward to address.
Whether those who download COVIDSafe are using it properly will largely determine its effectiveness.
Of those who had downloaded COVIDSafe, 90% said they had registered and kept Bluetooth switched on either at all times (77%) or when they left home (15%). Also, 58% said they had tried to share the app with others – helping to increase the rate of uptake.
Yet, there remains some doubt as to whether turning Bluetooth on is sufficient for the app to work productively on iPhones. According to app developers, COVIDSafe works best on iPhones when the app is open, on the front screen (foreground), and the phone is unlocked.
But since these iPhone-related issues can be fixed (albeit potentially with some level of difficulty), it would be worthwhile for the government to invest in this.
Before the release of COVIDSafe, our research also tracked social support for similar apps and tracking technologies in other countries, including the UK, US, Taiwan and Germany.
We asked respondents about two hypothetical scenarios of government tracking.
The first scenario was similar to Australia’s COVIDSafe app rollout. In it, people were asked to download a voluntary government tracking app allowing them to be contacted if they had been exposed to COVID-19. In this scenario, 70% of our respondents said they would download the app.
The second scenario was less voluntary, wherein all people with a mobile phone had their location tracked. Governments would use the data to trace contacts, locate people who were violating lockdown orders and enforce restrictions with fines and arrests, if necessary. Interestingly, in this scenario even more people (79%) said they would download the app. If people could opt out, 92% indicated they would support the policy.
Importantly, these scenarios were completely hypothetical at the time, which may account for the intention-behaviour gap. That is, the gap between people’s values and attitudes, and their actual actions.
So, while 70% of people in our first survey said they would download a hypothetical government app, a later survey showed only 44% had actually downloaded COVIDSafe after its release.
Australians showed high levels of support for both scenarios, particularly in comparison to other western democracies, such as the UK and the US.
An evolving situation
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly linked COVIDSafe’s uptake to a potential easing of lockdown restrictions. But more recently, federal defence minister Marise Payne said the app’s uptake wouldn’t be a deciding factor for when restrictions were lifted.
When asked if the government should use the app’s uptake levels to decide when restrictions should be lifted, only 51% of our survey participants responded “yes”.
Overall, our data show Australians are generally accepting of the use of government tracking technologies to combat the COVID-19 emergency. However, only time will tell how this translates to real-world uptake of the COVIDSafe app.
Detailed results of the survey data from Australia, as well as the UK, US, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and Taiwan, are continually being reported here.