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Digital & Innovation

COVIDSafe app released, but does it work on iPhones?

Health Industry Hub | April 29, 2020 |

Healthcare Technology News: The Federal Government has released the COVIDSafe app but there is still confusion about whether the tracking app works in the background on iPhones. Below Australian experts comment.

Dr David Glance from the University of Western Australia Centre for Software and Security Practice said “We have run more experiments with the app and monitored the Bluetooth communication. It appears that the iPhone version of the application will only work in background mode when communicating with another iPhone that has the app running in the foreground. When communicating with an Android phone, the iPhone app needs to be running with the screen on to communicate effectively. The app can safely run in background mode on an Android phone.”

“This problem may be fixed when Apple releases its changes for tracking with Bluetooth but until then, if you are running the app on an iPhone, it needs to be running in the foreground when you are out and about. The phone can be set into low power mode so that the app does not drain the phone.

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“Clearly this is not ideal but the full nature of the problem only became apparent after testing. Apple’s documentation would lead you to believe that it should be technically possible to run the application in the background, but this is not the case,” he added.

Professor Richard Buckland, CyberCrime Cyberwar and Cyberterror at the School of Computer Science and Engineering UNSW said “To my knowledge the issues with IOS have not yet been solved. They require Apple to make changes which would potentially weaken the security and privacy of their phones and reduce battery life so Apple will be reluctant to make them but presumably the Government will have the potential to exert pressure on them.

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“This app is potentially quite invasive and intrusive on your phone so the stakes are higher than for most Apps.  At the moment I have not seen *any* fully independent reviews of the source code.  Extensive pre-installation scrutiny is important to check that the app does not accidentally weaken the security of the phone in unexpected ways (this often happens with new code, especially code rushed out with minimal time for testing like this),” he said.

Professor Katina Michael from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at the University of Wollongong said “I am very concerned that the concept was tested but the app was not tested ‘in the field’ in ‘real-time’ with different handset types. Just because a piece of code executes it doesn’t mean it is bug free or design error free. Here we have a purported app that allegedly works (I don’t know how the user will be sure it is actually working as it should be) and we have not tested this for performance, battery usage. How much market share does iOS have in Australia? Significant – 40% according to Statista.
 
“The other thing that no one seems to mention too much is that not everyone has the BLE sensors needed in their handset, to make the App even work? What investigation was done into this? Did anyone take into consideration issues of in-building monitoring as bluetooth devices everywhere- pair to printer, to car, to earphones, to FitBit etc?

“There is a major chink in the design. And little attention was placed on user device performance. We haven’t done enough field testing and this means the device will likely not work as it drains people’s batteries which may well be a greater hazard than COVID, given Australia’s current COVID numbers.
 
“A lot of companies that develop software that require battery data and sensor data, have complexities when they want to launch to a market beyond Android users. This is well known in the industry. But such is the brand for Apple that they want to maintain their competitive edge, and ‘privacy-enhancing devices.
 
“iPhone users may well give the app a go, but when they realise how fast the battery drains, they will quickly uninstall the app as it will inhibit the rest of their productivity on the device. So this is certainly an issue we have to consider, but does show the government did not do comprehensive testing. Would we deploy a half-baked vaccine for the people before it is ready for human testing? The answer is no. Thus we should not do so for apps,” she concluded.

David Vaile, Stream lead for data protection and surveillance, at the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation at UNSW Australia said “Should we be downloading it without the code being released? This is the unfortunate question created by the government’s reliance on attempted persuasion rather than providing the full information needed for “informed consent” prior to releasing the app, and their preference for avoiding wide consultation and review by expert and civil society bodies.

“In principle for something like this that potentially creates a centralised store of social graph information, reliant on legal and technical fixes for protection, you would advise caution. The public health concerns are however also very important, which is why it is hard. Although even here without the provision of proper technical and risk information, it is hard to assess the likely impact of the app in addressing potential outbreaks following relaxation of suppression tactics like lockdown, and thus hard to assess ‘necessity and proportionality’ the key criteria for justifying intrusive uses of personal data,” he said.


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