National cabinet has agreed to bring forward its review of COVID restrictions by a week to next Friday, but more downloads of the app are needed.
“Australians have earned an early mark through the work that they have done,” Scott Morrison told a news conference.
So far, 11 out of 15 conditions for reviewing restrictions are already on track to be met.
But one of those still outstanding is for enough people to download the COVIDSafe app.
“This is a critical issue for national cabinet when it comes to making decisions next Friday about how restrictions can be eased,” Morrison said.
As of late Friday there had been 3.6 million downloads. The app will speed up and make easier the tracing of an infected person’s contacts.
The government is reluctant to put a number on what is required for the app to be effective as part of containing the virus. “We haven’t put a target number on. It just needs to be higher and it has to be as high as it possibly can be,” Morrison said.
“We need that tool so we can open up the economy.
“So it’s pretty important that we get people downloading that app over the course of the next week. So it’s over to you Australia, as we go through this next seven days.”
Morrison declined to say what restrictions might be lifted first but indicated health and economic factors would be considered.
Recently there been fewer than 20 new COVID cases a day.
The government also announced another $205 million for the aged care sector as a one-off payment to facilities to support them in the costs being incurred in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Some 23 facilities have been hit with outbreaks, with 15 now cleared.
National cabinet endorsed a draft code of conduct for the sector, following complaints from families, to “drive a more responsive and consistent approach to visitation and communication across residential aged care.”
The code “will also empower residents and their families to speak up and it will provide an agreed course of action to resolve complaints.”
Consultations with providers and consumers are being held until May 7.
At his news conference Morrison announced a huge fall in Australia’s net overseas migration.
“Off the 2018-19 year for net overseas migration, we’re expecting just over a 30% fall in 2019-20, the current financial year, and in 2021, an 85% fall off those 2018-19 levels as well.”
There are billions of mobile phones in use around the globe. They are present on every single continent, in every single country and in every single city.
We reviewed the research on how mobile phones carry infectious pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and we believe they are likely to be “Trojan horses” that contribute to community transmission in epidemics and pandemics.
This transfer of pathogens on mobile phones poses a serious health concern. The risk is that infectious pathogens may be spreading via phones within the community, in workplaces including medical and food-handling settings, and in public transport, cruise ships and aeroplanes.
Currently mobile phones are largely neglected from a biosecurity perspective, but they are likely to assist the spread of viruses such as influenza and SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
We reviewed all the studies we could find in peer-reviewed journals that analysed microbes found on mobile phones. Our conclusions are published in the Journal of Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease.
There were 56 studies that met our criteria, conducted in 24 countries around the world between 2005 and 2019.
Most of the studies looked at bacteria found on phones, and several also looked at fungi. Overall, the studies found an average of 68% of mobile phones were contaminated. This number is likely to be lower than the real value, as most of the studies aimed to identify only bacteria and, in many cases, only specific types of bacteria.
The studies were all completed before the advent of SARS-CoV-2, so none of them could test for it. Testing for viruses is laborious, and we could find only one study that did test for them (specifically for RNA viruses, a group that includes SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses).
Some studies compared the phones of healthcare workers and those of the general public. They found no significant differences between levels of contamination.
What this means for health and biosecurity
Contaminated mobile phones pose a real biosecurity risk, allowing pathogens to cross borders easily.
Viruses can live on surfaces from hours to days to weeks. If a person is infected with SARS-CoV-2, it is very likely their mobile phone will be contaminated. The virus may then spread from the phone to further individuals by direct or indirect contact.
Mobile phones and other touchscreen systems – such as at airport check-in counters and in-flight entertainment screens – may have contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the globe.
Why phones are so often contaminated
Phones are almost ideal carriers of disease. We speak into them regularly, depositing microbes via droplets. We often have them with us while we eat, leading to the deposit of nutrients that help microbes thrive. Many people use them in bathrooms and on the toilet, leading to faecal contamination via the plume effect.
And although phones are exposed to microbes, most of us carry them almost everywhere: at home, at work, while shopping, on holidays. They often provide a temperature-controlled environment that helps pathogens survive, as they are carried in pockets or handbags and are rarely switched off.
On top of this, we rarely clean or disinfect them. Our (unpublished) data suggests almost three-quarters of people have never cleaned their phone at all.
While government agencies are providing guidelines on the core practices for effective hand hygiene, there is little focus on practices associated with the use of mobile phones or other touch screen devices.
People touch their mobile phones on average for three hours every day, with super-users touching phones more than 5,000 times a day. Unlike hands, mobile devices are not regularly washed.
We advise public health authorities to implement public awareness campaigns and other appropriate measures to encourage disinfection for mobile phones and other touch screen devices. Without this effort, the global public health campaign for hand washing could be less effective.
Our recommendation is that mobile phones and other touch screen devices should be decontaminated daily, using a 70% isopropyl alcohol spray or other disinfection method.
These decontamination processes should be enforced especially in key servicing industries, such as in food-handling businesses, schools, bars, cafes, aged-care facilities, cruise ships, airlines and airports, healthcare. We should do this all the time, but particularly during a serious disease outbreak like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
However, rather than collecting location data directly from mobile operators, the proposed TraceTogether app will use Bluetooth technology to sense whether users who have voluntarily opted-in have come within nine metres of one another.
Contact tracing apps generally store 14-21 days of interaction data between participating devices to help monitor the spread of a disease. The tracking is usually done by government agencies. This form of health surveillance could help the Australian government respond to the coronavirus crisis by proactively placing confirmed and suspected cases in quarantine.
The TraceTogether app has been available in Singapore since March 20, and its reception there may help shed light on how the new tech will fare in Australia.
Internationally, contact tracing is being explored as a key means of containing the spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies three basic steps to any form of contact tracing: contact identification, contact listing, and follow-up.
Contact identification records the mobile phone number and a random anonymised user ID. Contact listing includes a record of users who have come into close contact with a confirmed case, and notifies them of next steps such as self-isolation. Finally, follow-up entails frequent communication with contacts to monitor the emergence of any symptoms and test accordingly to confirm.
The TraceTogether app has been presented as a tool to protect individuals, families and society at large through a community data-driven approach. Details on proximity and contact duration are shared between devices that have the app installed. An estimated 17% of Singapore’s population has done this.
In an effort to preserve privacy, the app’s developers claim it retains proximity and duration details for 21 days, after which the oldest day’s record is deleted and the latest day’s data is added.
TraceTogether supposedly doesn’t collect users’ location data – thereby mitigating concerns about location privacy usually linked to such apps. But proximity and duration information can reveal a great deal about a user’s relative distance, time and duration of contact. A bluetooth-based app may not know where you are on Earth’s surface, but it can accurately infer your location when bringing a variety of data together.
No perfect solution exists
The introduction of a contact tracing app in Australia will allow health authorities to alert community members who have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.
However, as downloading the app is voluntary, its effectiveness relies on an uptake from a certain percentage of Australians – specifically 40%, according to an ABC report.
But this proposed model overlooks several factors. First, it doesn’t account for accessibility by vulnerable individuals who may not own or be able to operate a smartphone, potentially including the elderly or those living with cognitive impairment. Also, it’s presently unclear whether privacy and security issues have been or will be integrated into the functional design of the system when used in Australia.
This contact tracing model is also not open source software, and as such is not subject to audit or oversight. As it has currently been deployed in Singapore, it also places a government authority in control of the transfer of valuable contact and connection details. The question is now how these systems will stack up against corporate implementations like that being proposed by Google and Apple.
Also, those who criticise contact tracing point out that the technology is “after the fact” when it is too late, rather than preventive in nature, although it might act to lower transmission rates. Some research has proposed a more preemptive approach, location intelligence, implemented by responsible artificial intelligence, to predict (and respond to) how an outbreak might play out.
Others argue that if we’re all self-isolating, there should be no need for unproven technology, and that attention may instead be focused on digital immunity certificates, allowing some people to roam while others do not.
And in the apps created to respond to particular situations, there’s always the question of: “who owns the data?”. A pandemic-tracing app would need to have a limited lifetime, even if the user forgets to uninstall the COVID-19 app after victory has been declared over the pandemic. It must not become the de facto operational scenario – this would have major societal ramifications.
It’s all about trust
In the end, it may simply come down to trust. Do Australians trust their data in the hands of the government? The answer might well be “no”, but do we have any other choice?
Or for that matter what about data in the hands of corporations? Time and time again, government and corporates have failed to conduct adequate impact assessments, have been in breach of their own laws, regulations, policies and principles, have systems at scale that have suffered from scope and function creep, and have used data retrospectively in ways that were never intended. But is this the time for technology in the public interest to proliferate through the adoption of emerging technologies?
No one fears “tech for good”. But we must not relax fundamental requirements of privacy, strategies for maintaining anonymity, the encryption of data, and preventing our information from landing in the wrong hands. We need to ask ourselves, can we do better and what provisions are in place to maintain our civil liberties while at the same time remaining secure and safe?
Borders, beaches, pubs and churches are closed, large events are cancelled, and travellers are subject to 14 days’ isolation – all at significant cost to taxpayers and the economy. But could telecommunications technology offer a more targeted approach to controlling the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus?
One possibility is to use location history data from the mobile phones of confirmed cases, to help track and trace the spread of infection.
Some people can be contagious without knowing, either because they have not yet developed symptoms, or because their symptoms are mild. These individuals cannot be identified until they become sufficiently unwell to seek medical assistance. Finding them more quickly could help curb the spread of the disease.
This suggestion clearly raises complex privacy issues.
All mobile service providers in Australia are required to hold two years of data relating to the use of each mobile phone on their network, including location information.
For anyone who tests positive with COVID-19, this data could be used to list every location where they (or, more accurately, their phone) had been over the preceding few weeks. Using that list, it would then be possible to identify every phone that had been in close proximity to the person’s phone during that time. The owners of those phones could then be tested, even though they may not necessarily have developed symptoms or suspected that they had come into contact with the coronavirus.
The government could do this in a systematic way. It could assemble everyone’s location history into a single, searchable database that could then be cross-referenced against the locations of known clusters of infection. This would allow contact tracing throughout the entire population, creating a more proactive way to track down suspected cases.
The privacy problem
You may well ask: do we want the government to assemble a searchable database showing the locations of almost every person over 16 in Australia over the past month?
Some people will undoubtedly find it a confronting prospect to be contacted by the government and told that surveillance analysis suggests they need to be isolated or tested. Others will be concerned that such a database, or the broad surveillance capability that underpins it, could be used to intrude on our privacy in other ways.
Several countries are already using mobile phone data in the fight against the coronavirus. The UK government is reportedly in talks with major mobile phone operators to use location data to analyse the outbreak’s spread.
India, Hong Kong, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Germany are also among the list of countries taking advantage of mobile data to tackle the pandemic.
The Singapore government has launched an app called Trace Together, which allows mobile users to voluntarily share their location data. Iran’s leaders have been accused of being rather less transparent, amid reports that its coronavirus “diagnosis” app also logs people’s whereabouts.
Is it legal anyway?
We may well take the view that the privacy risks are justified in the circumstances. But does the Australian government actually have the power to use our data for this purpose?
The Telecommunications Act requires carriers to keep telecommunications data secure, but also allows federal, state and territory governments to request access to it for purposes including law enforcement, national security, and protecting public revenue.
Being infected with COVID-19 is not a crime, and while a pandemic is arguably a threat to national security, it is not specifically listed under the Act. Limiting the outbreak would undoubtedly benefit public revenue, but clearly the primary intent of contact tracing is as a public health measure.
There is another law that could also compel mobile carriers to hand over users’ data. During a “human biosecurity emergency period”, the Biosecurity Act 2015 allows the federal health minister to take any action necessary to prevent or control the “emergence, establishment or spread” of the declared emergency disease. A human biosecurity emergency period was declared on Sunday 23 March.
In recent years there has been a great deal of debate over the use of telecommunications data for surveillance purposes. The introduction of the mandatory data retention regime was contentious, as was the broad power granted to multiple agencies to access the data for law enforcement.
One reason for the controversy was the relatively low threshold for use of these laws: authorities could access data relating to any suspected offence punishable by three years or more in prison.
Australia is now facing a crisis that is orders of magnitude more serious. Many Australians would be willing to see their information used in this way if it saves lives, limits the economic impact, and impedes the spread of COVID-19.
The Commonwealth has the legal power to do it, the security and privacy issues can be managed, and the benefits may be significant.
The link below is to an article that really covers some of my thoughts concerning Tablets, smartphones and PCs (Lap Top in my case). As in the article, I also find my iPhone and Lap Top are pretty much all I need – though I also have a Kindle (for reading ebooks only). I just can’t see how a Tablet can cut it with the various tasks I have to perform on the computer, such as a lot of keyboard activity.
What do you think? I’d be interested in your thoughts – please share in the comments.
The link below is to an article that looks at a version of the Bible that’s an App, called ‘YouVersion,’ it’s the Bible App for smartphones. What do you think of the app and what do you think of using a digital version of the Bible in worship – which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be using the ‘YouVersion’ app. You may have a PDF version on an iPad or perhaps a Kindle version of the King James Version. Any thoughts? Please share them in the comments.