Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

17.4.2020 Fairfax Tech Talk Column 194


The earliest archaeological evidence of any type of wheel was discovered in Mesopotamia dated around 5,500 years old. Those early wheels were used for pottery creation so it was left to the Ancient Greeks to develop the wheel for transportation in some basic axle carts. The wheel has developed somewhat since those early wheelbarrows and, despite the fact that the US Patents Office alone has issued more than ten million patents, the wheel is generally regarded as the greatest invention ever.

Hence the oft-used expression that we don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when it comes to creating something that has already been created.

I am concerned that this is the exact path the Australian Government is currently heading down with the announcement that a Coronavirus Tracing App is currently under development. This is on the back of a similar app currently being used in Singapore (called TraceTogether) and other apps being developed in the US and England.

As the promotional video for TraceTogether states, only two steps are required. Download the app and turn on Bluetooth. In a culture that is largely compliant, less than twenty per cent of the adults in Singapore have downloaded the app.

The Prime Minister has set a target of forty percent installation rate to make the app effective. “Tell him he’s dreamin'” because if Singapore can’t achieve twenty then we have no hope of forty.

Various governments are missing the obvious opportunity that has presented itself by two of the largest companies in the world. In a rare move, Apple and Alphabet (the parent company of Google) have collaborated to present a solution to try and help the world beat COVID-19. If there was one single action that sent a message of the severity of this virus, collaboration between these two competitors is it.

These two companies have developed a solution that allows the operating systems of Apple and Android phones to exchange data when phones are nearby using low-range and low-power Bluetooth signals. The location is not recorded and neither is any personal information. The record of these nearby interactions is kept for only fourteen days.

If a person is diagnosed with COVID-19 they will need to opt-in to the system to notify any phones they have been near in the past fortnight. Most importantly, the operating system itself will alert people that they have been exposed to someone who has subsequently been diagnosed with COVID-19. This is crucial. It doesn’t rely on each user downloading an app. It also doesn’t tell people when or where the exposure was therefore protecting the privacy of the individuals.

There are still some issues. It still relies on people having a smartphone – and with only a 77 per cent penetration rate in the over-60 age bracket, there is the potential to miss many of our most vulnerable people. It also relies on users upgrading to the latest version of their phone’s operating system but the success rate with this is much higher than the success rate of installing a new government sponsored app. Privacy issues are also a concern. Do people have more trust in their government or behemoth technology companies? Unfortunately, there isn’t really time to debate this issue. If we can save lives, we may need to place some faith in these organisations and scrutinise their actions during and after the process.

Technology can indeed help with the worldwide defeat of COVID-19 but governments need to work smarter and collaborate with organisations across the world.

Tell me who you would trust more with your data – large technology organisations or the government – at ask@techtalk.digital

Mathew Dickerson