The Australian Federal Police are investigating fraudulent messages that have been sent to people’s phones prompting them to log their personal movements, masquerading as the government’s new COVIDSafe application.
The message is playing on fears about the government’s COVIDTrace app, which, as of Tuesday, had nearly 2.5 million downloads. It tells the recipient that “the COVIDsafe App has detected you are now +20km from your nominated home address.”
“Please register your reason for travel by calling 1300 1MY GOV (+61 1300 169 468) within 15 minutes of receiving this SMS (10:12am AEST Monday 27 April 2020). Thank You”
The number listed doesn’t prompt the recipient to call a scammer’s hotline, however, it lists the genuine contact details for the government’s MyGov hotline. In order for the application to be most effective, the government is aiming for a 40% adoption rate from Australian citizens.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health has told the AFP that “this is a hoax message,” adding that “it is abhorrent that scammers would attempt to use the COVIDSafe app, a public health tool, to try and catch out Australians,” they said.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch site has also confirmed that the messages are a complete hoax, and linked to their existing library containing messages related to, and exploiting fears of, the coronavirus amongst others.
Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt told reports that “any misuse of telecommunications for a hoax is illegal.”
“Anybody who is found responsible will be charged with a significant criminal offence,” he said. “Whoever it is, they should be afraid of the law, because they are conducting a hoax which is about a very serious public health matter.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Health added that COVIDSafe application has none of the purported capabilities that the hoax text message claims. “The COVIDSafe App does not have any geolocation capability, it does not track your location, only the proximity of your phone to other people’s phones that have downloaded the app, and cannot monitor a person’s location at any time,” they said.
“The app does not register a person’s home address and it does not share or send any information with anyone, until authorised by the user, if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and then only to state and territory health officials involved in contact tracing.”
Software developer Matthew Robbins has told reporters that his technological peers believe the app to be safe for users in terms of their privacy. “It’s totally fine to install and it’s a good public service to do so,” he said. “If the tech community is pulling it apart and critically analysing it and hopefully effectively communicating what we’re seeing, I do think that people will uptake it.”
“We’re really being a counterbalance to what (the government) is saying.”
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy has said that the Commonwealth is unable to access any data collected by the application, adding that “we have locked this down so completely, so thoroughly with the biosecurity rule, with legislation that is coming, the only people who can access the data are the state and territory health officials.”
“The app will only ever be used by public health officials in the purposes of contact tracing,” he said.
There have, however, been growing concerns that under the United States’ 2018 CLOUD Act, law enforcement could access data collected from the COVIDSafe application with a subpoena. Under current laws, this is a possibility until Australia is officially recognised as a “qualified foreign government,” with an amendment to the Telecommunications Act that is yet to be passed through the House of Representatives.