iPhone COVID-19 Contact Tracing Is Off to a Rocky Start in Australia

Woman Wearing Mask and Social Distancing Contact Tracing iPhone Credit: IgorPloskin / Shutterstock
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Australia is starting to roll out its COVID-19 contact tracing service, and it’s running into some problems. According to ABC News Australia, there is an ongoing issue with the contract tracing app on the iPhone.

Unlike Germany which is using Apple’s COVID-19 API, Australia has decided to forge ahead with its own solution for contact tracing. The COVIDSafe app was modeled on Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which allegedly also is encountering the same problem with iPhone owners.

The iOS app uses a Bluetooth connection to initiate a digital handshake between two devices. This handshake registers a close encounter between two people and saves this information to the iPhone. This data then is shared anonymously with government officials who use it when a person tests positive for COVID-19.

People are running into problems with the accuracy handshake because of limitations in iOS. Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), which oversees the project, explains that the app works best when the phone is unlocked, and the app is open in the foreground. When the app is in the background, it does not work reliably.

“When [an app] is running in the background, there may be some variability in the digital handshakes on iOS devices,” he said, or its ability to exchange signals with other apps on iOS.

DTA spokesperson

The requirement to open the app and have it in the foreground could be problematic for inexperienced iPhone users who may not understand how to accomplish this task.

Users who expect it “just work” may miss potential contacts and could send erroneous data to public health officials. These errors make the app less useful as a tracing tool for officials who are relying on this data to keep its citizens safe.

There is no reliable workaround for this problem as the issue lies with iOS security. iOS tightly controls which apps are running in the background and which services, like Bluetooth, are accessible. In the end, users will have to remember to keep the app open and running in the foreground when they want to log contact with another person.

Apple is working on its COVID-19 tool that will integrate more closely into iOS. Presumably, this tool will work in the background and will more accurately log random contacts.

Australia isn’t ready to abandon its app, but DTA did tell ABC News that it would look at Apple’s approach and see how Apple’s solution could “enhance the performance of COVIDSafe.”

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