In a matter of months, the coronavirus has gone from a complete unknown to a menacing, but better-understood pandemic. While vaccines and effective treatments remain far off, research and anecdotal evidence have revealed the power of social distancing and contact tracing for reducing the spread of the disease. Along the way, researchers have also discovered the power of technology for implementing measures needed to address the pandemic as quickly and as effectively as possible.
In Australia, the technological response to the coronavirus rests on an advanced app known as COVIDSafe. This app first launched in late April and has since been downloaded by many Australians who are eager to do their part.
COVIDSafe is not mandatory, but downloading the app is highly encouraged for anybody who wants to assist in the critical process of contact tracing. This increasingly prevalent practice involves the close monitoring of how, accurately, the disease spreads from one person to the next. With conventional contact tracing, health officials visit individuals known to be infected. During these visits, officials strive to determine who infected individuals have recently been in contact with and under what conditions.
Proponents of the COVIDSafe app believe that this tech-oriented approach could play a key role in keeping Australians informed about the spread of the coronavirus, while also empowering residents to keep one another safe.
A successful contact tracing campaign is most likely if the COVIDSafe app is downloaded and used by as many people as possible. To achieve such widespread adoption, however, health officials will need to address privacy matters and other concerns currently expressed by skeptics. First, Australians should understand how the app works and why it’s crucial — key topics that are discussed in detail below.
The primary mission of the COVIDSafe app is to speed up the otherwise manual process of contact tracing. Upon downloading the app, users are assigned unique reference codes. The app can then be enabled for Bluetooth.
During interactions involving multiple users, COVIDSafe records critical information, including the time, duration, and distance between individuals. For this reason, the app is most effective if left to run as users pursue typical daily activities.
Information collected by the app is encrypted to ensure full security. Not even the phone’s owner can access this data. What’s more, contact information is deleted within 21 days — just long enough to cover the disease’s incubation period and the typical timeline for testing.
If one of the app’s users tests positive for COVID-19, information about recent contact with other people can be retrieved via the encrypted code. This can only occur with permission from the user. Once given the go-ahead, data contained on the app can be uploaded to a secure storage system. From there, health officials will quickly get in touch with all those who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus.
The COVIDSafe app is strictly temporary. After the pandemic ends, its use will no longer prove necessary. At that time, users will be asked to delete the app. In turn, all gathered information will also be deleted. Additionally, data uploaded to the aforementioned storage system will disappear.
While some Australians have cited concerns related to privacy, many have enthusiastically embraced the COVIDSafe app as a practical means of addressing the rapid spread of the coronavirus. With widespread adoption, this app could hasten the contact tracing process, and ultimately, flatten the curve to make the disease more manageable throughout Australia.