Badly designed. Badly marketed. The virus that has infected the Australian government

By LAURIE PATTON | 4 May 2020

In the same week that Labor front-benchers Kristina Keneally and Tim Watts released a discussion paper examining Australia’s cyber resilience the Government was battling to convince us to download an app that IT experts and lawyers warn has basic design flaws.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has issued a thinly veiled threat to the nation. Download COVIDSafe if you want to go to the pub or watch your favourite sports team playing any time soon.

The Australian newspaper, always happy to tag-team in support of this Government’s latest political line, ran a front page screaming: “Seven days to free a nation”. So, what’s next? If we don’t download the app they’ll impound our cars and deny us food and water?

The history of the COVIDSafe app will in time reveal two fatal strategic mistakes. Firstly, a failure to consult with the right experts to ensure the app was technologically fit-for-purpose from day one. Secondly, a failure to effectively communicate the value of the project.

On the first count this exercise is yet another example of a recent tendency for half-baked IT schemes to be foisted upon us. Not to mention outright debacles like the 2016 Census, and the problematic introduction of My Health Record.

The infamous data retention scheme provides a good clue as to why IT experts are wary of COVIDSafe. The Commonwealth Ombudsman has revealed that notwithstanding all the assurances from then Attorney-General George Brandis police officers have gained access to people’s web-browsing history without the legally required search warrant.

Among the issues plaguing the introduction of COVIDSafe is the fact that effectively it isn’t compatible with phones using iOS – about 40 percent of the market. While it’s said that Apple is working on a solution you’d have thought this is something to be sorted out before launching the product, surely?

By far the biggest fear being expressed in the media is the risk of people’s personal data being misused. The current Attorney-General, Christian Porter, has assured us he will ban law enforcement agencies from accessing data from the app. Oh really, Harry? Our data is secure in government hands?

At last count just over four million have downloaded COVIDSafe. The Government says we need a 40 percent take-up for the thing to work. That’s around 9-10 million people.

According to Mr Morrison, not downloading the app is “like not putting on sunscreen to go out in the blazing sun”. The trouble is it’s arguably more like being told to put on sunscreen today in case the sun comes out tomorrow. He might be right about the app, but he needs a better, more persuasive, analogy.

Given that 80 percent of the population isn’t yet convinced enough to join the scheme it is worth pondering the basis on which the Government is so keen on the idea. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is quoted as saying she is “sceptical” of the value of a tracing app (although she may still consider using one). The only other country nearby that has tested the concept, with limited success, is Singapore.

Today I spoke to a highly respected doctor with a very senior managerial role at one of the country’s major hospitals – as we socially distanced ourselves at our local super market. While she hasn’t yet downloaded the app she told me she intended to and this caused me to ask why some of the country’s chief medical officers are backing the scheme in the absence of any independent evidence it will do what is intended. It’s simple she replied, with more than a tinge of good humour, “Doctors think we know everything”.

At the current rate of take-up I’d guess we are about ten days from having to decide whether or not to dump the app and come up with another tracing strategy. As my aforementioned medical friend also noted, it’s still possible that things get worse – especially with winter upon us. And, what’s more this might not be last time we encounter such a situation.

At the heart of the problem with COVIDSafe is peoples’ sense that they just cannot trust this Government when it comes to technology. Back in 2016 the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Cyber Security, Alastair MacGibbon, warned of a lack of trust in government digital services. Even now we are relying on ministerial assurances in relation to access to the data being collected. There’s legislation in the pipeline. Why didn’t they recall Parliament and pass it right away?

So my plea to the Government and the Opposition is simple. Let’s learn from this exercise and see if we can do two things. Firstly, let’s build an app that has the support of a broader group of IT experts and human rights lawyers. And secondly, let’s find a way to persuade the general public that, notwithstanding all the serious government-initiated technology stuff-ups in recent years, we can have confidence that the (updated) app is safe to use.

In the 1980’s television series ‘Yes Prime Minister’ James Hacker justifies squibbing on a hard decision by claiming “I am the leader of my people. I must follow their wishes”. There’s a lesson for the Coalition in this I reckon. It just hasn’t convinced enough of us that it is sufficiently in our interest to be loading up our phones with a mysterious app that some people say is fine and others say is dangerous. Rather than trying to force us to follow his commands Mr Morrison might be better advised to take a very convincing hint from the voting public. Fix it or flick it.


In a further embarrassing turn of events, the ABC reports that the app is not even operational yet: “…if a person tests positive to coronavirus today the information on their app will not be passed on to contact tracers because states and territories are still working out how the system will operate”.

(Laurie Patton is a public interest advocacy and marketing / communications practitioner. He is a former political advisor, journalist and media executive.)