April 29, 2020

Federal politics

Trust me this time

By Russell Marks
Image of the new government app COVIDSafe is seen on a television monitor

© Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Forgive us our cynicism when it comes to the COVIDSafe app – Australian governments have been downright untrustworthy for a long time

Trust, it seems, is a fickle thing in politics. Years of survey data show a steady decline in the trust Australians have in their political leaders and the institutions of government (from quite a high base, it must be said). And it’s no wonder. The idea that Australians might be able to implicitly trust their governments to protect their interests and not be unnecessarily data-harvesty or underhanded or incompetent or captured by private interests seems to belong to fabled days of yore.

Enter the federal government’s COVIDSafe app, available to download onto smartphones since the day after Anzac Day. Trust us, Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt are saying: this time we’ll do the right thing and only use your data for the single purpose for which it was intended. And we’ll store it securely. We won’t use it to prosecute or breach or cut anyone off anything. We won’t even cause your data to be uploaded at all until you test positive! It won’t be like Robodebt or co-payments or rebate freezes or metadata collection or My Health records or the national census or mutual obligation or any of those other times we flagrantly breached your trust. If enough of you download COVIDSafe, everyone – maybe even the freeloaders – gets rewarded with fewer restrictions. It’ll be wonderful!

Nobody’s mandating any downloads, at least at this stage. Rather, Morrison is trying on the language of civic duty, comparing using the app to buying war bonds. No doubt he’s also hoping the social-distance shamers will transfer their outrage to those who remain app-less. (Does COVIDSafe contain a white feather emoji to share on socials?)  

For many people, the digital horse has long since bolted out of the privacy gates. They don’t care who knows where they are at all times, they say. Even if they did care, they say, they can’t do anything about the fact that their whereabouts are already on dozens of servers at any given moment. So if COVIDSafe – which doesn’t even track location, apparently – saves lives, what’s the issue?

It’s interesting that the app has become available at just the moment that COVID-19’s spread in Australia has slowed to a crawl. Testing rates are in the top 20 per cent in the world. Fatality rates here are incredibly low (three per million people, which is around 100 times lower than the rates in both the United Kingdom and Italy, and just 1 per cent of confirmed cases). Our rate of 264 confirmed cases per million people is orders of magnitude better than most of Europe and North America. Our #coronastats are even more impressive than those of New Zealand, which restricted harder and faster. Australia is lucky, yet again, while still being run by Donald Horne’s second-rate people who share its luck: cue Morrison at last enjoying the popularity boost he should have enjoyed during the bushfires, had he not bungled it.

The technological problems associated with contact-tracing apps are well known. COVIDSafe will only register interactions of more than 15 minutes’ duration. That’s likely to miss many “spread events”. Bluetooth connections pass through walls, but viruses don’t. Non-symptomatic spreaders are unlikely to be diagnosed, so their contact data won’t ever be uploaded. Just how useful will COVIDSafe be?

The app won’t actually prevent anyone from becoming infected. The most it can do is allow for slightly more targeted contact tracing, which might mean that potentially infected people get tested a little earlier. But part of the reason Australia’s rates are so low (despite our relatively high rates of urbanisation) is that most of us have behaved sensibly. We’ve been washing our hands, coughing into our elbows, keeping our distance and reporting symptoms. If COVIDSafe is being sold as a means of relaxing some of these restrictions, it represents the classic moral hazard: we download the app and then feel safer, which leads us to change our behaviour, and thus spread the virus.

Ultimately, COVIDSafe is being sold the same way as every new national security measure: give up some of your privacy so that we can all be safer.

The digital age has been marked, in Australia, by governments that have taken every opportunity to capture data and then exploit it – and us – in new and interesting ways. We’re now being asked to accept that COVID-19 has so reformed the social contract that we can accept the assurances of a government we’ve never been able to take at face value, in furtherance of a social objective that’s already been met. This is in the context of a history in which Australian governments have for a long time wanted as much data as they can possibly get about us, so that they can deliver not so much better services as more punishment.

When he says it won’t be like that this time, Morrison may be telling the truth. But when authorities have cried wolf for so long, how are we to believe him?

It’s worth remembering that legislation related to oversight and privacy provisions has not yet been passed, so we’re still relying largely on the “good word” of the government that the uses of the app’s data will not change or be abused or subpoenaed in the future. In the meantime, people are right to be wary.

Perhaps COVID-19 is less the context for the contact-tracing app than the opportunity. COVIDSafe may be as limited as authorities say it is. But it’s also a Trojan Horse. It was Medicare’s original administrator, the Health Insurance Commission, that famously wanted to “stage” the rollout of the Australia Card so as to not to spook the public. Even as Morrison speaks of the app’s single purpose and strict limits, governments are rolling out facial recognition–enabled CCTV cameras across our cities and towns in line with a national biometric capability agreement that has very few privacy protections indeed.

Maybe COVID-19 and the take-up of COVIDSafe represent some kind of watershed moment for Australians’ trust in their government. But on most of the measures that matter – incarceration rates, the rich–poor divide, mental illness, greenhouse gas emissions, donation and lobbying disclosures, species extinction, child abuse and waste creation – Australian governments have been downright untrustworthy. If government in Australia had functioned adequately for the past three decades – democratically, that is, in the interests of the people who live here and the communities we’re part of – we wouldn’t be rushing to house the homeless and raise social security, because those things would not need to be done.

On COVIDSafe, forgive us for being a tiny bit cynical.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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