COVIDsafe is security theatre because its assumptions are vague and its promises are unrealistic.
So you might have noticed we’re having a bit of a pandemic. Government responses to it have been many and varied, but of interest to me is the Australian governments rollout of the COVIDsafeapp, touted as a non-intrusive tracing application to find infected people faster and stop the spread of the virus. The code isn’t exactly crystal-clear; it’s descended from an open-source tracing application that’s been re-jigged for iPhone and Android via a shared framework by Apple/Google which we are assured is an open API and the results of a simple decompilation at least give us the app without any worrying obfusticated binary blobs…yet. And that’s the problem. The whole “yet” problem. Because despite its initial friendly rollout and reassuring thumbs-up from professionals, there’s a whole list of issues with the app that add up to a case of “security theatre”.
Security theatre is a real problem. The term was invented by Bruce Schneier to describe an investment in countermeasures to provide the appearance of security without any serious results. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of management practices that get decoupled from the business systems they purport to manage. Never discount the ability of management to ignore reality when they have a vested interest to do so. Unfortunately this blindness and casual attitude to security can have severe consequences especially when least expected.
A terrible example is the loss of the space shuttle Columbia: management assumed foam wasn’t a serious issue even though they were aware that a piece had hit the shuttle and their review processes downgraded the seriousness of the problem; the engineers who might have warned them assumed their opinion was not wanted and dared not risk their jobs to force the issue. With hindsight, if the two sides had managed to communicate it was possible they might have verified the real problem and saved the astronauts but we shall never know. What we do know is that NASA management had to be dragged in front of a demonstration where a piece of foam was shot at a piece of shuttle tile in identical fashion to the critical incident with similar results before they admitted that it was even possible the damage could be done.
Problems with the app
However, security theatre with COVIDsafe is less simple and doesn’t yet have the benefit of hindsight to have its dangers pointed out in cut and dried fashion. But I shall try with the help of some notes from a friend in the security business who like me is rather cautious about the app: the first most obvious problem is that it doesn’t work on iPhones properly, even though it’s supposed to be based on a shared framework with Android. For it to work you have to have bluetooth working, the screen active and the phone in your hand and in use for around 15 minutes. That’s not very long, certainly not long enough for any serious telemetry they’re claiming to be getting. It makes no difference to the virus which can live on surfaces up to 72 hours whether you were in the same vicinity of the person who left it or not. We know it can work through airborne transmission but likely not for much longer than a couple of hours. So already we have half the smartphone-using population without a working app in proximity to possibly infected areas that the app has no idea about.
Then there is the problem of take-up. For it to have an appreciable effect they think it needs 40% installation. 3.5 million people have downloaded it, thats only 15%. And remember, a lot of those people are using iPhones.
Now we come to the “yet”. The “yet” is whatever they do to upgrade the phones, will they fix the bugs (there are a lot)? Will iPhones work in the same way to Android using the framework (hard to see how)? More worryingly, will they use it as a default tracker by adding more functionality to add real ID information and bury all this in a binary blob that’s definitely illegal to look at? Maybe not, but we don’t exactly trust our government on the basis of their track record so far. The best you can say of the effort is that at least it’s incompetent and not deliberately malicious so far. By itself it doesn’t actually do anything but possibly alert authorities to already known targets, and how useful is that, really?
At this stage that’s all I can conclude from the current state of the app and its take-up. But I won’t be installing it myself because I can’t see any tangible benefit to me or to anyone around me and I’m worried by the blithe assumption that this will be “enough”. It’s a sales job and it may do great harm in presenting a “feel good” facade to a serious situation.