Is COVIDSafe safe?

Is COVIDSafe safe? The government’s new tracing app, surveillance, and privacy[1]

On April 26th, the Australian Federal Government released COVIDSafe, a contact tracing app for smart phones. It aims to help State and Territory health officials trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19. The main benefit of a high take-up rate of the App would be to enable the government to incrementally ease limitations on public gatherings. This would permit businesses, social organisations, and eventually churches, to also steadily recommence physical operations.

But a significant question people have about the app is – does it threaten my privacy?

Privacy and the Bible

It is right for Christians to be concerned about privacy – our own privacy, and the degree to which privacy is respected and protected in general. We share a lot of our personal information digitally through social media and smart phone apps, so we are rightly concerned about how that information is stored, who accesses it, and for what purpose. We are rightly concerned about government surveillance, digital marketing strategies, and the use of personal information by corporations for their own gain.

The Bible affirms privacy.

·      People’s bodies are private. You shouldn’t stare at people’s ‘private parts’ – that’s what Canaan did to his father Noah, and got cursed for it (Gen 9:20-25).

·      Certain bodily functions are carried out in private for the sake of hygiene. Rachael’s father Laban respects her privacy when she is menstruating (Gen 31:35). Saul relieves himself in private (1 Sam 24:3).

·      Jesus connects privacy with piety. If you really want God to see your Godliness, then perform your Godly acts in private, where only he can see (Matt 6:1, 4, 6, 18).

·      If we feel that someone has wronged us, both the Old and New Testament instruct us not to engage in public character assassination – gossip and slander – and instead to try to deal with privately, just between you and the person you have the complaint against (Lev 19:16-18; Matt 18:15; Eph 4:25-27).

·      The home is private to those who live there. A lender cannot simply barge into a house and take the collateral for their loan. They have to wait outside for the borrower to bring it (Deut 24:10-11).

One survey of how the Biblical narrative deals with the question of privacy concludes in favour of privacy as a general principle:

[T]he common moral lesson [of the Bible] is that the individual deserves to be protected from public encroachment into the personal domain … and … there [also] exists an obligation for every individual and organization to respect other individuals’ privacy.[2]

On the other hand, the Bible affirms openness.

·      We should be public about our Christian identity. Christians should shine as a light in the world (Matt 5:14-16), and Christian character should be observable in public (1 Tim 3).

·      We should not nurture sin in private, but confess them to one another as part of the process of turning away from them in repentance (1 Cor 5; James 5:16).

·      And we see openness for the sake of others. The commands to bear one another’s burdens (e.g. Gal 6:1-2) assume a level of openness that would make those burdens known to (at least some) others.

Privacy can be suspended in two ways.

1.     We can voluntary give up our privacy if we are convinced that openness is better for the common good – for us, our families, and everyone else.

2.     Our privacy can be invaded against our will.

a.     We rightly fear this kind of invasion, because it usually means the invader wants to exploit or harm us in some way.

b.     But someone could possibly invade our privacy to save us! E.g. a police officer or fireman might bust into our house, grab us, and hustle us out, saying “get out now! There’s a gas leak! The place is gonna blow!”

The same article which strongly affirmed the general principle of privacy also said privacy could be superseded in order to save life:

Where information has economic value, then privacy takes precedence over economic usefulness. Only where there is an immediate threat to life is the right to privacy superseded.[3]

The COVIDSafe app does not INVADE our privacy

The government’s tracing app does not INVADE our privacy. The app, and its associated information storage systems, have numerous features designed to protect the privacy of the information we share.

1.     Use of the app is voluntary. It is not mandated by law. No-one will be punished for not using it.

2.     Consent is required at each stage of the registration process, including for information to be transferred to health department data storage systems.

3.     When you install the app, it stores your name – which could be a pseudonym – your phone number (which is verified via SMS), post code, and age range in 10 year brackets. The system then creates a unique encrypted reference code for the phone on which the app is installed.

4.     The app recognises other devices on which it has been installed. Once Bluetooth has been enabled, the app recognises another user who is 1.5m away for a period of 15 minutes, it notes the date, time, distance and duration of the contact and the other user’s reference code. The app does not collect information about the location at where the contact was made.

5.     The collected information is encrypted, stored securely on the phone, and deleted from the app on a 21-day rolling cycle.

6.     If you happen to be diagnosed to have contracted COVID-19, health officials will ask you for permission to upload the encrypted contact information from the app into a secure information storage system located in Australia.

7.     Only certain authorised health officials can access this contact information. Even the user can’t access it themselves.

8.     This contact info will be used to trace contacts so they can be given information about how to seek medical advice.

9.     The person with the positive diagnosis will not be identified to contacts. All contacts will be told is that the COVIDSafe app has identified them as having been in proximity with someone who has recently been diagnosed with the illness, and how to act on this possible exposure.

10.  You can delete the app, and the information it has collected, from you phone at any time. All users will be asked to delete the app from their phone when this pandemic crisis is officially over.

11.  When the pandemic crisis is officially over, the information on the storage systems will be permanently deleted.

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has indicated it is satisfied with the app’s protection of privacy.

[On the] understanding that the app does not track your geo-location and that personal data and cyber security concerns have been designed into the app, the AIIA therefore supports the government tracing App and strongly recommends that all Australians download it.[4]

Voluntarily giving up our privacy for openness

So if this is not an invasion of privacy against my will, should I voluntary surrender some aspects of my privacy by using this app? This a decision on which Christians may validly disagree. But I recommend use of the COVIDSafe App, for the following reasons.

1.     It has a good purpose. Its purpose is to assist in containing this pandemic, so that people can be cared for and restrictions on public gatherings eased. It is therefore not a surveillance device like something out of George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. We rightly fear and reject that kind of surveillance, because it seeks to control us and restrict our freedoms by rewarding behaviour which the state deems favourable and punishing behaviour it deems antisocial. This app does not do that. It tracks contacts, not locations. And that contact tracking will be used to serve people’s health, not evaluate people’s religion, politics, etc.

2.     Suppose a government agency uses the app for some purpose other than public health – e.g. to evaluate people’s religion or politics. Then the government and its agency deserve to be penalised for lying to us! But this is not a danger unique to this app. The government, and government agencies, should be scrutinised and evaluated according to whether they are telling the truth – including, but not unique to, truth about the use of the data collected by the COVIDSafe app.

3.     Similarly, if some external agency steals the COVIDSafe data and uses it for nefarious purposes, they deserve to be punished for theft. But again, this is not a danger unique to this app. Data privacy is worth protecting in general.

4.     Wide use of the app will have a lot of public benefit. It will facilitate a staged re-opening of businesses, social organisations, and churches, and thereby permit us to enjoy freedoms of movement and assembly which are currently, for good reasons, restricted.

5.     The individual liberties we sacrifice in using the app are relatively slight. The contact info will only be used if we contract the virus or come into contact with someone who has it.

6.     The app has significant benefits to the individual. If we’ve been exposed to the virus, we can get informed relatively quickly, and act to protect ourselves, our families, and others around us.

In summary: the app can do a lot of good; and the dangers associated with it, while real, are not unique to it. I therefore recommend it be widely used, for the good our ourselves, our families, and our society.

Kamal Weerakoon.jpgPastor Kamal Weerakoon was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia. He is studying a PhD in multicultural ministry in a globalised world, and is the missions pastor at Gracepoint Presbyterian Church, Sydney. His past ministry experience includes a church in Sydney’s lower north shore, reaching middle-class professionals; a church in Sydney’s outer west, reaching people of lower socio-economic background; a church in inner-city Sydney, seeking to reach hip young professionals; churches ministering specifically to people of Arabic, Indian, and Sri Lankan background; and campus ministry with AFES.




[1] This article draws on information provided by the PCNSW Gospel, Society and Culture Committee in their article ‘COVIDSafe: Contact tracing for the pandemic’. All opinions expressed in this article remain my own.

[2] Benjamin Glass and E. Susanna Cahn, “Privacy Ethics in Biblical Literature”, Journal of Religion and Business Ethics, April 2017, p18.

[3] Glass & Cahn, p21.