The Digital Transformation Agency's COVIDSafe app update has done little to fix core issues, experts say

The nearly $6 million-dollar COVIDSafe app has received another major update but experts say underlying issues remain. Image: Shuttershock
The nearly $6 million-dollar COVIDSafe app has received another major update but experts say underlying issues remain. Image: Shuttershock

The government's troubled coronavirus tracing app has been given a major technical update but experts say it still hasn't fixed its core issues amid further outbreaks in NSW and Victoria it has done little to assist with.

The COVIDSafe app, released in late April 2020, was sold as Australia's ticket out of lockdowns. In the months since, it has been heavily criticised as being oversold and under-delivered by the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

Plagued with technical issues affecting its ability to record whether other users are in the vicinity, along with a failure to reach its download target, its success assisting contact tracers remains limited.

The Digital Transformation Agency, the government team behind the app, has worked to fix a number of the Bluetooth and privacy issues raised by a group of software developers who have worked to uncover issues with the app through its accompanying source code.

The agency has since introduced a new update promising to fix the app's major flaw - its inability to flawlessly record contacts unless subject to specific conditions.

Other connected Bluetooth devices, whether the app was on in the background or whether a phone was locked all affected how likely the app would "handshake" with other open COVIDSafe apps in the vicinity.

The UK-based solution to this, Herald, was introduced in a new version of the app released the week leading up to Christmas. The agency claimed the update helped to improve the connection issues stopping it from being a successful technological solution.

But Jim Mussared, a former Google developer and one of the software developers, said while the update offered some improvements, many of the underlying issues remained.

"[The new improvements] were obvious things that should have been done from the start ... or they rely on very dubious hacks that lead to a worse experience for the user," Mr Mussared said.

Some of those issues included the reintroduction of bugs that had been previously fixed, such as problems when using the app when multiple Bluetooth devices are connected as well as battery drain.

The digital agency insisted the issues, including connectivity and battery performance, had been fixed and that it now provided regular and accurate information on close contacts.

According to the agency's own testing, the app's ability to record close contacts was now considered "excellent", ranging between an 80 and 100 per cent success rate.

But Mr Mussared said it was hard to independently verify the data the agency provided to back up their claims, too.

"I do not doubt that Herald improved some aspects, but right now what they're telling us is that they got a great mark for their math test, but also that they wrote all the questions and won't show anyone the questions or let anyone else sit the test," Mr Mussared said.

Despite the alleged improvements becoming available prior to the Christmas period, the COVIDSafe app has still done little to help identify chains of transmission amid the recent NSW and Victorian outbreaks.

Both states' health authorities have confirmed with The Canberra Times the app has not been needed to conduct contact tracing in the most recent clusters over the busy holiday period.

Eight cases in Victoria were confirmed to have downloaded the app but no contacts had been identified through it.

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It comes as an interim report delivered by a Senate committee in December found the multi-million dollar app had failed to deliver on initial promises over its first eight months.

"The $5.24 million COVIDSafe app has significantly under-delivered on the Prime Minister's promise that the app would enable an opening up of the economy in a COVID safe manner," the report said.

"The app was launched with significant performance issues and has only been of limited effectiveness in its primary function of contact-tracing."

The report added the app had delivered "extremely limited tangible results to date".

Apple and Google's solution, released more than six months ago, could have been a simple fix to address the issues, Mr Mussared said.

"When the app launched in April, the Google [and] Apple solution was already on the radar," Mr Mussared said.

"[The DTA] never should have released it, and instead they should have put their effort into launching a really good Google [and] Apple-based app, which could have gone live in June.

"Importantly, they could have spent the time focusing on things that actually matter - integrated QR check-in, hotspot tracking."

A spokesperson for Government Services Minister Stuart Robert responded that moving to Apple and Google's method would undermine the public health response and lose out on valuable contact tracing data.

"Fundamentally the [Apple and Google solution] is only a notification framework as opposed to COVIDSafe, which is a full contact tracing solution integrated with the contact tracing processes of the states and territories," a spokesperson for Mr Robert said.

"Giving up this important integration risks leaving our health system unable to manage the pandemic effectively.

"Comparing the performance of the health response in Australia to those overseas jurisdictions that use ENF, such as UK, makes that risk abundantly clear."

The agency's commitment to the existing COVIDSafe method, Mr Mussared said, is why the app hasn't been at the centre of the contact tracing response.

"The DTA promised [the Department of] Health that the COVIDSafe approach was technically superior - because on paper, it is," Mr Mussared said.

"Instead of a solution that works most of the time that delivers most of what they want, [Health] got a solution that nobody wants to install that doesn't work well, but, in theory, delivers more information."

But Mr Robert continues to stick by the app but the government's messaging has shifted.

It's no longer the "sunscreen", or key, to solving the coronavirus crisis, rather just one tool in the kit.

"The COVIDSafe App remains an important tool in Australia's toolkit to prevent another lockdown, working hand in hand with our public health official contact tracers," a spokesperson for Mr Robert said in a statement.

"It has been designed in conjunction with our public health officials to meet their needs and it is effective in aiding the work of public health contact tracing teams."

This story Experts say government's 'limited' COVIDSafe app still not effective amid new outbreaks first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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