Minister still blaming COVIDSafe flaws on Apple and Google

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has once again gone to bat for his department’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, saying it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

“The app is working exactly as it intended to be, it’s designed there to assist with manual tracing, designed to augment it, it’s been used over 300 times now by health officials to ensure that manual tracing is picking up all the various contacts, so it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” Robert said, speaking on Sky News.

“They’re designed to work together and they’re designed to do just that.”

Facing criticism on COVIDSafe’s lacklustre performance, Robert said the limitation will always be what the handset allows.

“We’re working with Apple and Google to get the handset Bluetooth signal as strong as possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective, doesn’t mean it’s not working,” he said.

“The effectiveness from Android to Android, it’s excellent, near 100%; the effectiveness from Android to iOS drops down. The effectiveness from an iOS iPhone 11 running the latest software will vary when it connects to an iPhone version 7, there’s not one rate or one level that it connects to, but right now it’s effective and is working well.

“Apple and Google could fix this tomorrow with their exposure notification framework, which was their way of doing things with an app in the background. With a locked phone, the iOS, the Bluetooth works perfectly, so Apple could fix this tomorrow, they could actually ensure that the Bluetooth strength was at the highest possible level tomorrow for applications built in a sovereign framework and we’re working with Apple constructively on this.”

Must read: COVIDSafe’s problems aren’t Google or Apple’s fault despite government claims

According to tech community developers who’ve been debugging the app, that’s not the case.

“If the government are claiming that the issues are Apple’s fault, then it just doesn’t make sense when we know that there are perfectly good explanations that are not Apple’s fault,” developer Jim Mussared told ZDNet.

“We know that there’s a bug here, and we know that it results in the app not functioning, and we know that it results in breaking connectivity to other devices. So what grounds have they therefore got to be blaming mysterious issues on iPhones?”

Robert said the app is just one part of the defence against coronavirus, which he said also includes washing hands and “not doing large demonstrations on the streets”.

“It’s like saying to soldiers you don’t need a weapon because artillery and tank fire will keep you safe, which might be fine until a time unless the enemy gets awfully close,” he continued.

Robert rejected the idea that using that analogy was like saying “the bullet works but the gun doesn’t”.

“It’s simply saying the opportunity for the app is there to assist with a manual tracing effort,” he said.

“This is the most secure bit of technology government has got in terms of protecting credentials, it works as intended,” he added.

COVIDSafe has this week had its eighth update pushed out by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA). Last month, it was revealed that the DTA knew that the app had severe flaws, despite sending it out for public use on 26 April 2020.

With the app facing cost blowouts, such as contracts revealed this week as being awarded to Boston Consulting Group (BCG) tipping AU$809,380, former Australian Medical Association deputy medical secretary Dr David Adler said the grand total of government spending on COVIDSafe “seems to be” about AU$70 million, which includes AU$64 million spent on its advertising campaign.

“Not a single case has been identified which we can demonstrate is a result of the app — so it’s AU$70 million down the proverbial toilet,” he said, also speaking on Sky News this week.

Also under Robert’s watch is Services Australia, which has responsibility for Centrelink and its contentious robo-debt scheme.

The federal government in May admitted the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative incorrectly issued 470,000 debts to those in receipt of welfare, requiring the department to refund around AU$721 million to Australians. The debts to be refunded are those which used automation techniques to calculate money owed to the government, but it only includes debts that were raised post-2015.

On expanding the refund project to those in receipt of welfare prior to 2015, Robert told the National Press Club last month he knows “it’s been going on for 10, 20, or 30 years” as the Ombudsman report made that clear.

“We know that it started probably as early as 2007 … as I said in Parliament, we’ve done a sample of 500 in 2009 and 16.6% — or about 4,000 debts — were raised wholly or partially with average ATO data,” Robert said.

“We did the same thing in 2011 and in 24.4% of those, debts were raised either solely or passing through averaged income data. So that’s the only data sets we have at present in terms of where we sit, which just goes to show I guess the long history of the use of averaged ATO data that had been common practice for many, many years.”

Documents received under Australia’s Freedom of Information Act further break out this sample Robert requested, showing that of the 500 cases from 2009 and 2011, chosen at random, 75.6% were “fully verified”.

57 cases from 2011 were found to have solely used income averaging to determine a “debt”, and of the 2009 cases, 34 of them solely used income averaging.

Partial averaging was used in 65 of the cases from 2011, 50 from 2009.

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