A fake check-in app is being used by Covid-19 conspiracy theorists and anti-lockdown groups to dupe business owners and keep location data out of the hands of contact tracers in at least three states.
Guardian Australia can reveal that conspiratorial websites and Telegram groups with at least 15,000 followers are sharing links that allow users to generate fake check-in confirmations on their phones.
The user simply enters their name and a check-in location, and the app instantly generates a check-in confirmation screen that is near-identical to those displayed on government-run apps in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.
The app passes no information to government, making it difficult for contact tracers to find people in the event of an outbreak.
One Covid conspiracy website, which the Guardian has chosen not to name, says the app will let people enter a premises “without arguing with the business owner”.
“This simple workaround creates what looks like a covid QR tick of approval, but it doesn’t send your private information to the government,” the website says.
Users are instructed to “flash the tick quickly” to avoid business owners asking questions about the IP address that appears above the confirmation screen.
“Most people will see the tick and not examine the screen too closely,” users are told.
Geolocation data suggests the app is hosted by a Russian web address and is coded in a way that suggests the involvement of someone with professional web development skills or, at the least, a skilled amateur.
Links to the app are being shared by some of the same Telegram groups that organised nationwide anti-lockdown rallies last month.
The Guardian has found links being promoted in at least six anti-lockdown groups which have almost 15,000 members between them.
“It’s a false one to mimic the app that we all supposedly must ‘use’,” one Telegram user wrote after the link was shared in her group. “Keeps no data on your phone and you can show the store person and they won’t ask any questions.”
Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said she could not fathom why people would use such an app. She said data was only accessed by authorities in the event of an outbreak.
Deliberately avoiding checking in would only hamper contact tracing and extend the lockdown further, she said.
“Every time we slow down the identification of people at risk of infection, we potentially expose many more and the outbreak grows,” Bennett said. “Every time a case goes undetected in the community, we end up with not only more cases, but more infected people that won’t even be aware they have been exposed, so they won’t be tested until they are sick themselves.
“Failing to check in, or using a fake check-in app, is the surest path to extending lockdown.”
University of New South Wales public health professor Mary-Louise McLaws said Covid check-ins were critical for helping speed up contact tracing and ensuring proper isolation.
She said the fake-app threatened to undermine the current response to the Delta variant.
“Contact tracers are always catching up and if their speed of catching up is significantly reduced by fake QR codes, then the outbreak has the potential to be uncontrolled,” she said.