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Not so Covid Safe

By John Haly  

The CovidSafe app has triggered innumerable privacy and security concerns amidst the public, who are already deeply suspicious of a government that has eroded public trust. Amongst recent instances of the diminishment of our trust are:

Despite the trust deficit, the Australian Government has spent $1.5m on CovidSafe, including over $700,000 for Amazon to host the data.

But is the issue Trust or Competence?

The lack of trust in this Government’s promotion of this CovidSafe App may be justifiable on their record on privacy and security. Still, you have to keep in mind their frequent displays of incompetence in science and technology. Remember Abbott and Brandis trying to tell the public what metadata was? Remember Malcolm Turnbull trying to come up with a better NBN? Recall both the Australian Census online or the Centrelink portal failures were falsely blamed on convenient DOS attacks? Attacking them on untrustworthiness can be done. Still, it is easier to criticise the App’s lack of suitability both technically and statistically. So I am going to stay away from the privacy and security issue and ask the question, is the CovidSafe App fit for purpose?

The Physics of Radio Signals

My analysis begins with a comment in a recent ABC article concerning the software bugs and issues of the COVIDSafe contact-tracing app:

“ … “Because mobile phone device models are different in Bluetooth strength and how they operate, all contacts within Bluetooth range are noted on the user’s device,” a DTA spokesperson said. …”

Bugs and issues can be fixed (although not in time before lockdown lift begins), but there are limits to what our science can discern about the physics of radio signals, like Bluetooth.

Let me ask you, dear reader, a few questions.

Do you live in the country, city, an apartment or have anyone who lives within 10 metres of you? Do you stand in a social distancing line keeping the required 1.5m while waiting to get into a shop? The answer to the last question ought to be yes, but bear with me. If you are within 10 metres – or in right circumstances, perhaps twice that – then you and a stranger or a known neighbour can be tagged with “associating” because this App uses Bluetooth to detect other phones.

Before you protest that it is supposed to be when you are within 1.5 metres, keep in mind using BlueTooth for localisation is a very well researched field of study. Bluetooth and other narrowband radio systems can only reach an accuracy of several metres at best without accompanying geolocation or triangulation of wifi data (a strategy later IEEE papers raise as attempts to overcome localisation inaccuracies). Naturally adding geolocation data, raises all the apparent privacy and monitoring concerns (which I said I was not going to go into). This App, for now, doesn’t use geolocation except on the Android/Google version of the App in a limited capacity.

Bluetooth Ranges by class dependancies

 

Signal strength isn’t a good indicator of distance between two connected BlueTooth devices, because it is too subject to environmental conditions. Is there a person between the devices? How is the owner holding his/her device? What is its proximity to metal plates that impede the signal path? Are there any other radio frequency reflecting surfaces? Is there a wall? Concrete walls will attenuate the radio signal. Using BlueTooth is essentially wholly inaccurate, and it has absolutely no sense of direction. Much like our Government, but I digress. Whereas the virus can’t traverse walls and floors (unless it is brought into enclosed spaces by people), Bluetooth can. Generically for a distance of approximately 10 metres. Although my testing on a five-year-old iPhone 5 running iOS 9 can make a connection from nearly 20 metres through two building walls or doors. So Bluetooth can’t tell when you are 1.5 metres away.

Bluetooth Ranges are extending not contracting.

 

Meaning two neighbours sitting alone watching TV in their lounge room – according to their respective phones running the App – have been in close contact for hours if your binge-watching a good series. Let’s not even discuss how long you and your neighbours have spent “sleeping” together, while alone in your adjacent houses or apartments with your phones on the charger by your beds. For all you know, anybody’s phone might be standing in the adjacent store, approximately ten or more metres away but with whom you never interact. The Government App will be rife with false positives without you even knowing who these “contacts” are.

Google Phone providing geolocation permissions

But alternatively, a passing stranger’s viral cough load, can in seconds, infect you. So can contact from a surface contaminated with coronavirus. Someone coughing into your face is undetectable by your mutual phones, unless he spends 15 minutes in your proximity, apologising. At least if that happens, you have plenty of time to ask for name and contact information for the contact tracers, when one of you gets unfortunate news after being tested. Touching an infected surface and forgetting to wash your hands before shovelling food into your mouth, means the time between contact and infection, can be hours, but either the wrong or no phone, might be blamed.

The App can detect none of these scenarios that tell you when another person with the same App, has a phone. None of these things will trigger a 15 minute Bluetooth alert. It is not just false positives that it will generate, but it simply can not detect anything other than another phone. Let me reiterate. It is a Phone detection facility, not a virus detection facility!!

The Lottery Probability

Now let’s discuss some numbers! The ABC reported on the 6th of May, that 5 million phones that had uploaded the App. The Government reported on the same day we had conducted 688K tests Australia-wide for the virus. This lifted our testing stats to 2.6% of the population, presuming not too many people have gone in for repeat tests.

Our consequent testing regime has risen (as of 21st of May) to 1,137,684 tests or 4.4% of the Australian population of 25.695 million. Simultaneously, the upload of CovidSafe has slowed to only 5.87 million by the 19th of May. So 22% of the population (a long way from Morrison’s desire for 40%) with an App that can only potentially detect 4.4% of the population, and a lot of these tests will be negative – for now. Only 0.65% of all those tests have been positive.

The Covid infection Status in Australia as of 6th of May

 

So let’s rephrase that.

So 22% of the population – if paired with mutual phones running a working version of the CovidSafe App – can confirm the 0.65% of 4.4% of our population, has coronavirus. To be fair, it might have a remote possibility of identifying someone with an infection, but the probability of my winning the lottery has a better chance. Let’s not forget the only alert the App – in theory – sends, is AFTER someone has been infected and have informed authorities and a tracing team has triggered the alarm, which, if they have infected you, is a little too late. Note I used phrases like, “might have” and “in theory.” Sadly as of writing this, the capacity of the App to do any of this is non-existent.

The Covid infection Status in Australia as of 21st of May

Operability

As of the 19th of May, no State in Australia has reported any use of the CovidSafe App data, and the State with the most substantial documented infection rate (NSW) “has had issues integrating it into the existing contact-tracing method.” In addition to the incapacity of States to process the data, many smartphones can’t run the CovidSafe App.  The Guardian reports, “there are no plans to make it work on phones operating older software than iOS 10 and Android 6.0.” This is not a recent discovery, as we have known for some time that the tracing capacity is inoperative.

Risk Factors

The most significant risk is the public’s misunderstanding that it will keep them safe. That leads to complacency, which means people may ease their due diligence and not be so cautious about social distancing and washing their hands regularly. That is where it becomes dangerous.

To quote one woman I interacted with recently on social media said, “I have the app because l want to be notified if l have come into contact with a positive person and get tested ASAP.” The App was never even conceived to be a buzzer that alerts you to positive people nearby. Perceptions like that actually make it dangerous! Not only does it not keep you ”safe,” but it also has the potential to increase the risk of infection through complacency. The Government has been negligent in educating the public not only to what it is supposed to do, but what are the limits of the physics of radio waves and statistical probability.

People’s misunderstanding of how the App works leads to risk taking.

Alternately?

Instead of focusing on a dysfunctional App, perhaps we should be following the examples of IcelandSouth KoreaGermany, or our neighbour New Zealand and upscaling randomised asymptomatic testing or regular testing for critical workers. All the success stories of countries handling the virus have the common thread that testing was crucial.

Conclusion

The App is not a panacea for tracing infection. It is a placebo to placate the masses who are too technically illiterate to understand the nuances and limitations of technology, by an incompetent Government that focuses on misunderstood technology at the expense of more robust asymptomatic testing of Australians.

Unfit for purpose? Gov’t or App?

This article was originally published on Australia Awaken – Ignite your Torches.

 

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12 comments

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  1. Jack Cade

    I refuse to sign up for the app. I would not give Dutton any more avenues to scrutinise my life, and anyway, I see an ulterior motive behind everything this Pecksniff government does.

  2. New Bruce

    I would actually compare our current “scottyfrommarketing led government” to the covid19 virus.

    If you actually come into contact with it :
    A) A large percentage of people will not really notice, and life will just go on as the usual struggle.
    B) A somewhat smaller percentage will become sick, irritable, very angry and frustrated, and may have to be instituionalised somewhere until their symptoms disappear.
    C) Fewer, but still a large number, will become very sick and tired of having to beat their heads repeatedly against the wall and will ultimately end up under supervised care for an extended period of time, and may or may not recover, or may just give up entirely.
    D) SOME WILL DIE !!!!!

    Sadly, at this point in time, there is no cure for either.

    Stay healthy.
    Rage on.

  3. ajogrady

    Could this virus pandemic be a result of the tundra and perma frost melting caused by Climate Change that released viruses and bacteria that had been frozen solid?

  4. Jack Cade

    ajogrady

    A novel idea, and not as silly as it sounds. Lord only knows what’s locked into the permafrost.

  5. Kathryn

    So glad that I did not download the useless Covid-19 App that the sociopath, Peter Dutton, was so desperate to push through! We all know – and have experienced – that everything the LNP says, does or promotes, turns to SHIT in record time!

    Considering the undemocratic, power-obsessed fascism of the unspeakably inhumane and megalomaniacal Peter Dutton, is it any wonder that the overwhelming majority of Australians would become very wary of a somewhat dubious App that had the ability to trace your every movement? Who the hell knows WHAT else was loaded into it besides a “Big Brother” styled tracking device? Listening devices? Devices that could track who you called, what text messages you received and sent? Who knows?

    Everything the LNP does is based on self-entitlement, greed and their attainment and maintenance of autocratic power at any price. History has shown that no one in their right mind, with an IQ above single digits, would trust the lying, conniving LNP as far as you could kick ’em! The LNP’s lies, callous inhumanity towards our most vulnerable citizens, their paranoia and hatred of anyone who challenges, opposes or condemns their increasing corruption, blatant nepotism and ineptitude goes back decades and made so much worse by the deviously dishonest war criminal, John Howard, the mumbling misogynistic elitist, Phony Abbott and now, a bible-thumping hypocrite (Morrison) who’s cowardly lack of leadership during the worst fires in our nation’s history, breathtaking lies and sanctimonious pious pomposity fails to hide the dark, malignant vindictiveness of a power-obsessed narcissist. Fancy handing over so much “power” to such evil, regressive tyrants as Morrison and his vile attack dog, Peter Dutton?

    Looks like the App cannot – and never could – undertake everything that the serial liar, Morrison, promised it would. Well, surprise, surprise! Unlike the discredited Murdoch rags, The Guardian has revealed the true worthlessness of the App (click on the link below). I will repeat the mantra that should be the legacy of the LNP over the last seven years: Everything – absolutely EVERYTHING – the LNP says, does and promotes turns to SHIT in record time! True to form, the LNP have not achieved ONE single thing to benefit the lives of ordinary Australians (outside the Top 1%) EVER!

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/24/how-did-the-covidsafe-app-go-from-being-vital-to-almost-irrelevant?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX0d1YXJkaWFuVG9kYXlBVVMtMjAwNTI0&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=GTAU_email&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayAUS

  6. New England Cocky

    Yep!! As expected …. a novel person tracing app for the benefit of the fascist Benito Duddo to track down and persecute any member of the LIarbral Party who does not support Duddo’s challenge for the position of Prim Monster.

    An excellent explanation of the workings of the Scummo Sacked from Marketing surveillance system that is straight out of “1984”.

    But please tell me when the Liarbral nazional$ ever did anything for the Australian voters rather than their mates in corporate BIG END of TOWN??

  7. Skepto

    This article is terrible. While going into a vast amount of largely irrelevant detail about Bluetooth, you don’t actually explain how the app is supposed to work at all, you just pick holes in it. One might suspect, aside from your vast knowledge of Bluetooth physics, that you yourself are one of the technologically illiterate masses.

  8. ajogrady

    Jack Cade.

    Interesting that you mention novel. A novel virus is one that has not been previously recorded. This is what the called the virus when it was first impacting people.
    Back to the Tundra and Permafrost. I read an article about natives of Arctic regions digging for prehistoric Mammoths to get their ivory tusks to sell. On one of these digs in the Tundra region they uncovered a complete Mammoth and scietists were able to actually take samples of blood as it had defrosted to that point. Amazing but scary as they are thinking of cloning It. It seems to me that human induced Climate Change from the burning of fossil fuels is having a four pronged attack on humans. 1. From severe weather events. 2. The melting of ice caps causing sea water inundation to low lying areas, salinity, making them unusable to grow food or liveable. 3. Air pollution impacting on people that manifest itself in creating poor lung function and more people dying from the Corona virus. 4. Unknown viruses and bacteria being released caused by Tundra and Permafrost melting which will quickly mutate. Just thinking about how nature is reacting to the fossil fuel lobbies attempt to prolong these dangerous products and the cost in human lives and misery if the status quo continues.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Skepto, I disagree. The article is aimed at telling you why the app is no good. It does that.

  10. Jack Cade

    There has been an interesting turn in posts to AIMN in the last few weeks. Some contrary opinions being expressed. I’m all for debate – I am occasionally persuaded to change my views, so I welcome contrasting points of view. I’m just intrigued at the sudden appearance.
    For example, When the virus was being discussed, and I pointed out that it was equally likely that, if the virus HAD been developed in a lab, the lab involved could have been Fort Detrick as Wuhan, being as it was/is a CIA operation, one writer said that the CIA was not as bad as I thought, that the ‘CIA do some good things.’ I said I couldn’t think of any (and I did try, despite my jaundiced view of ‘the company’.)
    As I said, I like and welcome contrary opinions, especially as I have been described as ‘full of shit’ once or twice by people who know me well…

  11. John Haly

    Skepto,
    Your request the article should “explain how the app is supposed to work” is not the point of the article, as that information is provided in the embedded links of the article (One of the Guardian articles that are referenced twice in embedded links does all that). That is why there are embedded links for the curious to look further into the subject. I can’t help you if you are unwilling to take advantage of the research I have provided for you.

    Jack,
    To not put too impolite an emphasis on matters, your friends are trying to tell you something your enemies won’t.

    New England Cocky,
    To be fair to the App, it is not – for now – tracking your movements or that of Liberal party traitors. It doesn’t even work correctly on many smartphones and is uninstallable on many older phones. I believe that right now, the government officials implementing this genuinely don’t intend to use it for law enforcement and population control or surveillance of our associations, which would be an obvious concern to journalists, whistleblowers, socialists, unionists, legal & medical advocates and protestors. But history shows us that just because something is introduced for one reason, doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t be repurposed for other uses later. It’s an App, and these get updated all the time, and given how on several types of phones it still doesn’t work in any manner, it will need to be updated. Given that any App can be updated with new functions, once it is on your phone and a user consents to updates. So the potential for it to be repurposed always exists. For now, this isn’t such an issue as the more pertinent concern is to get it to work properly, which is pretty unlikely to occur.

    New Bruce,
    That association of characteristics between “Scotty from Marketing” and the Covid-19 virus is inspired! Brilliant observation.

    That’s all from me.

  12. Bert

    To top it off NSW can’t even use the data when it’s provided. Don’t know about other states as I haven’t seen reports.

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