We live in the world of big data. It’s a world where governments and private companies know more about us than ever — and we’ve never been more suspicious of them.
While many are oblivious or uncaring of the data being amassed about them through every click of the mouse, every notification “liked” or every online purchase, some citizens fear an Orwellian future where state collection of information leads to repression.
And if it’s not governments’ use of that information that triggers suspicion, there’s the omnipresence of tech giants who’ve become expert at monetising users’ data.
Stemming community anxiety about the use and misuse of personal data has never been so important or urgent for the Federal Government. Indeed, it will be critical in its hi-tech attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.
With a view to keeping a closer eye on the coronavirus outbreak, the Prime Minister’s tasked development of a smartphone app to help monitor the daily interactions of Australians.
It’s not an original concept. China, Hong Kong, Russia and Singapore all have COVID-19 apps. The United Kingdom, Europe and the United States are developing them.
Singapore has even shared its app coding with Australia.
But the Government needs at least 40 per cent of the public to voluntarily sign up in order for it to be effective. And that’s going to be a significant challenge.
This national project will need willing conscripts.
Australians will need to be convinced the right safeguards are in place to ensure their data isn’t hacked, misused or accidentally released.
The Government’s sell
In Singapore, which perhaps has a more compliant and obedient population, just 20 per cent of people have signed up to the TraceTogether app.
So how then is the Federal Government going to get almost half of all Australians to hand over their data?
Speaking on Perth radio station 6PR, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged it would be a difficult sell.
He was quizzed as to whether he thought people would be willing to download an app that handed over their movements to the Government.
“I don’t know. You tell me,” Mr Morrison replied.
“If people believed and understood that if we could trace people’s contacts quicker and track down the coronavirus faster and save people’s lives … we could open our economy up more? It’s a bit like buying war bonds during the war.
“There are things we might not ordinarily do, but [do] in these circumstances to keep people safe, to save lives and to save people’s livelihoods and get them back to work.
“If that tool is going to help people do that, this may be one of the sacrifices we need to make,” he said.
But Paul Gardner-Stephen, a senior Science and Engineering lecturer from Flinders University, said the Government would struggle to get the required 40 per cent of Australians to sign-up.
“If we look back to the My Health database, we saw somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of Australians opted out of that database because they didn’t trust having a large centralised database of their health information,” he said.
“If there’s one thing that’s possibly more sensitive than health information, it’s actually who you associate with.”
How does an app work and can people really consent to it?
It is understood the app would plot who had spent 15 minutes or more in close proximity with a person who ultimately tested positive to COVID-19.
It’s going to be modelled on Singapore’s TraceTogether app which uses Bluetooth technology to exchange information between two app users.
The information is logged on the device and if someone tests positive to COVID-19, they’re asked for consent to upload the app’s data logs to a server.
Health authorities can then use the data logs to contact other TraceTogether users who were in contact with the infected user.
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Mr Morrison insists that like in Singapore, only health authorities will have access to the data.
“It would only be in an instance where someone had coronavirus, you wouldn’t be mandatorily required to sign up to these apps — that’s not how Australia works,” he said.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert is in charge of the project and argues the app will effectively “digitise” the current contact-tracing process that already occurs when someone tests positive to coronavirus.
“It will only capture the same information that is currently being gathered by public health officials when they manually identify those who may have had close contact with an infected person for a period of 15 minutes or more,” Mr Robert’s spokesman said.
“Crucially, this app will ensure health authorities can get the full picture and not rely solely on the memory of an infected person.
“This will help identify people who might not even know they are carrying the virus — protecting them, their family and the community more broadly.”
The Government offers assurances that data will be stored securely and anonymously on mobile phones, fully encrypted and inaccessible by anyone, including the user.
Dr Gardner-Stephen said he would be concerned if the Australian Government copied Singapore by uploading the app’s data to a server, rather than keeping it on a device.
He said that would attract privacy threats from hackers and the Government itself, and would also act as a disincentive for people to sign up to use the app.
“If the data stays on your phone and it never uploads anything, people are going to be much more likely to download that app,” he said.
Marie Johnson, a Canberra-based digital services and e-health expert, doubts users of the coronavirus tracing app can truly give “informed consent” to their data being used.
The Government has indicated the information collected by the app will be de-identified or anonymised to safeguard users’ privacy.
But Ms Johnson, who was formerly chief technology architect for the Health and Human Services Access Card and head of the NDIS Technology Authority, said such data could be “de-anonymised”, a pitfall that was considered by the British Government when it considered similar technology.
She said a better alternative would be a stronger focus on telehealth rather than what she described as “tele-surveillance”.
“In my opinion, a citizen’s phone has become a ready platform for surveillance, not service,” Ms Johnson said.
“Even if this tracing app is operational for just six months, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.
“Six months’ worth of digital information about a citizen’s movements and who they’ve been in contact with has to be a concern to everybody.
“There’s no evidence this will protect a vulnerable person.
“In reality, the ‘ordinary person’ does not have the capacity to give informed consent and that is a problem for democracy.”
Amid such hostility, convincing Australians that it’s in their interests to download and activate a government-sponsored app will be a daunting exercise in persuasion.
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