By John Coyne
If you download the app and someone you’ve been in contact with gets infected, you’ll be notified. (ABC News: Emma Wynne)
The Government wants to track us via our phones. And if enough of us agree, coronavirus restrictions could ease
At 5:30am yesterday my seven-year-old son and I took our golden retriever for a 5 kilometre stroll. While shivering, we passed runners, walkers and fellow pet lovers.
We’ve no way to know if any were infected with COVID-19, which is why we’re walking so early and maintaining our social distancing.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks the Federal Government is going roll out a new phone app to trace COVID-19 victims’ movements before they show symptoms.
The Federal Government wants to drastically improve its ability to trace those who are infected, and who they’ve been in contact with.
This contact tracing ability will provide the Government with a means to prevent and trace clusters of infection. It’s amazing how the language of virology and pandemics has become increasingly part of our daily language.
All Australians are going to be asked to download and use the app: The Government needs about 40 per cent of us to participate to make this system work.
So, will you download the app?
Before you say no …
As you’d expect, digital rights advocates are animated about the potential for government overreach. What data will be collected? Where will it go? Who will access it? All very good questions.
The app sounds like something the Chinese Communist Party might dream up to improve its mass surveillance.
Let’s also be clear, successive governments haven’t had a lot of success introducing new technology.
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Before you say “no thanks” consider a few facts.
On Tuesday, 7,000 people across the world died from COVID-19. More than 1.4 million are infected.
Our world, including Australia, is in uncharted waters.
Government figures show 40 per cent of the population must sign up for the app for it to be effective. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
We don’t have the luxury of debate time
We’re still the lucky country, but we’re also in a kind of limbo. A vaccine is at best 18 months away, although one must be found first, which shouldn’t be considered a given.
We’re controlling the rate of infection, but if we lift our isolation measures without wiping out COVID-19, then off we go again, with the potential for high rates of infection.
It’d be wonderful to have years, or even months, to debate the relative benefits of the app.
Unfortunately, extraordinary times demand similarly extraordinary measures. And 126,000 deaths worldwide so far is pretty extraordinary.
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So what’s on the table?
What is being proposed is no different than our existing health surveillance system.
If someone is infected with COVID-19, then the app will be used to notify those who they have been in contact with. At present this is a painstaking exercise and without the app it is nearly impossible to find all, or even most, of the people an infected person has come in contact with.
When the app notifies you that someone you’ve been in contact who is infected, it won’t tell you their name. It’ll allow you to rapidly access medical assistance to test whether you are infected. It’ll allow you to access medical care to manage the infection. It will prevent you from infecting others if you have the virus.
Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the Government can access mobile phone technology and public security cameras to achieve mass surveillance — but it can’t. Regardless, COVID-19 isn’t a national-security or police issue, it’s a health issue.
It’s important to remember that the app itself isn’t without inbuilt protections.
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While I’m not advocating blindly trusting government or tech firms, I am asking people to remember that 50 per cent of Australians have downloaded and played Pokemon Go.
I want to get more normalcy back in my life, so I’ll be downloading the app.
But I also want the Government to assure us that once this crisis is over, it won’t use our data for anything else.
Dr John Coyne is head of Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement and head of the North and Australia’s Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
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