Contact tracing by some Australian businesses is as good as ‘useless’ and putting customer information at risk, a data expert has warned

Contact tracing has become a main tenant of Australia’s containment strategy but is it working? (H. Bilbao, Europa Press via Getty Images)
  • Nearly one in three Australian businesses are failing to comply with their own state’s contact tracing requirements, a new study suggests.
  • Even those that do may prove “useless” with information unverified, as well as possibly incorrect and improperly stored.
  • The data comes as New South Wales and Victoria both grapple with a rising number of coronavirus cases.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The data you’re giving pubs, cafes and restaurants might be doing little to actually counteract coronavirus outbreaks.

Despite being a major focus of Australia’s response, almost one in three Australian businesses are failing to actually comply with government requirements, according to a new study commissioned by tracing app SafeEntry.

“Our research from July indicates that 30% of businesses do not have contact tracing or a record keeping system that complies with their state government directives,” spokesperson Linda Manoukian told Business Insider Australia. “Even more concerning [is the fact] 21% of businesses with customer foot traffic do not use a tracking system at all.”

Interestingly, the complacency that has set in among businesses appears to have spiked in areas where COVID-19 has not.

One in three businesses in Western Australia, which has recorded 659 confirmed cases since March, doesn’t have any kind of contact tracing at all. Compare that to one in seven in New South Wales, where cases are again rising.

The latest spate is already testing the state’s capacity.

“New South Wales has had an exemplary response to the pandemic and is doing an incredible job with contract tracing and testing … but if the numbers get large, they will overwhelm the ability of contract tracing to work,” Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of think tank Committee of Sydney, said.

Certainly, ineffective and inconsistent tracing will only hamper the containment effort there and around the country.

Manoukian, a psychologist by training, claims the situation is only exacerbated by the window for human error.

“Simply adopting a QR code does not make a business compliant,” she said. “If personal details are incorrect, this would undermine the process of contact tracing. Therefore, if a business does not verify the data, the data is in fact useless.”

While most businesses have rushed to get some sort of system up and running quickly in order to reopen, they may not be effective if they’re ever called upon.

“Contact tracing only really works if every business implements a centralised system that both verifies patron information and reliably records and stores this information,” Manoukian said.

“Currently, [it] is a long and arduous task of interviewing a person and attempting to record all movements the person made for a period of time. It also relies heavily on a persons’ memory of where they have been, which can generally be unreliable.”

Certainly, there are also legitimate privacy concerns over what happens to that data once it’s given. Nearly one in two Australian business owners report a noticeable discomfort among customers to pass on their details every time they enter a venue.

“Customers do not have any control over how a business chooses to store their personal information. They rely on the business to adhere to state government directives and delete this information after a time-limited period,” Manoukian said.

“Storage isn’t necessarily electronic, and if it is, it is not necessarily stored securely on a server in Australia.”

Requirements differ from state to state, with records to be kept for anywhere between a few weeks to a few months before they’re meant to be disposed of or deleted.

But with businesses still behind the eight-ball, and a recent spike of cases in Victoria and New South Wales, there’s clearly a long way to go.