The Digital Transformation Agency has admitted there will be instances where the COVIDSafe fails to capture digital handshakes on iOS, despite previous assurances from ministers that the contact tracing app works in both the foreground and the background.
But the peak IT agency maintains the Bluetooth issues aren’t clear cut, refuting claims made by some in the tech community that the app needs to be open on two iPhones for it to exchange a digital handshake.
Speaking at the senate inquiry into the government’s response to COVID-19 on Wednesday, chief Randall Brugeaud said Bluetooth connectivity on iOS was “highly variable”, depending on if COVIDSafe was open or in the background.
It raises questions about the effectiveness of the app, which more than 5.1 million Australians have now registered for, in augmenting the contact tracing process conducted by state and territory health officials.
The issues stem from Apple typically preventing third-party apps from broadcasting Bluetooth signals when running in the background or locked. The issue does not apply on Android, which accounts for just under 50 percent of Australia’s mobile operating system market share.
When the app was launched, health minister Greg Hunt and government services minister Stuart Robert stated there was no issue with performance, though the DTA have since confirmed COVIDSafe’s effectiveness is reduced when the app is in the background.
“What we can say is the quality of the Bluetooth functionality for phones that have the app installed running in the foreground is very good,” Brugeaud said in response to labor senator Katy Gallagher.
“And it progressively deteriorates and the quality of the connection is not as good as you get to a point where the phone is locked and the app is running in the background.”
Brugeaud said the app’s performance was largely dependent on the model of iPhone, with Bluetooth signal strength poorer on older phones.
However he said this would continue to improve as the app was updated, both in the course of regular updates and Apple and Google’s proposed contact tracing API.
“We issued another release of the app yesterday, we’ll do another release in the next week or so that will add additional improvements, so we’re improving it all the time,” Brugeaud said.
“But the big shift in the performance of the Bluetooth connectivity will be the point of which we’re able to leverage the new Apple and Google Bluetooth management software.”
He noted that Australia would be one of the first adopters of improved Bluetooth connectivity from Apple and Google.
Brugeaud said that although there were teething issues with the app, ironing out all the issues would have taken significantly longer.
“There will be circumstances where the app doesn’t capture a handshake, but our option was to wait until every feature was running perfectly and deliver a solution in six to 12 months time,” he said.
Digital handshake not restricted in the background
While admitting differences in Bluetooth performance in the foreground or background on iOS, Brugeaud rejected that the app needs to be unlocked on two iPhones for it to send and receive encrypted identifiers and therefore log contacts.
Videos on social media show that the app is not capable of both transmitting and receiving identifiers over Bluetooth when one iPhone involved in the digital handshake is locked or has the app running in the background.
“There’s been speculation that you have to have at least one of the iphones unlocked and have it in the foreground for it to exchange identifiers with another phone,” Gallagher asked.
“That’s not been our experience. That’s not correct,” Brugeaud responded before later clarifying that the “performance of the Bluetooth connectivity varies between phones”.
“I cannot provide a view that the app will work 100 percent at the time with all handsets where the devices are locked.
“The variability, however, is less significant based on our testing. The performance where the app is running in the background and the phone is unlocked is very similar to where the app is running on the foreground on an unlocked phone.”
Brugeaud also said that while the DTA had reached out to the tech community to verify some of the claims, its ability to do so had been limited.
“Our capacity though to reach out to all of the development community that have ideas or opinions is limited,” he said.
“But we are engaging with the tech community on general issues that they may be identifying and we’re working through those in a methodical way.
“We have a backlog, as you’d expect, of issues. We prioritise those and deliver improvements on an iterative basis.”