Many Australians are understandably concerned about this new state-run smartphone app—the one designed to trace the contacts of individuals who test positive for Covid-19, which has infected 4 million people worldwide and killed 275,000. Australia has largely been spared, with about 7,000 cases and 97 deaths. By contrast, the UK has 211,000 cases and 31,000 deaths, and in the US it’s 1.3 million cases and 78,000 deaths.
Still, Canberra is all set to roll out the so-called contract tracing app. People who download the app will be giving an uncertain amount of location data away, which will be used to trace where they have gone and with whom they have been in contact. Then, presumably, their contacts will be tracked down, tested and, if they test positive, isolated.
Contact tracing was a big component of China’s (seemingly successful, though we don’t really know for sure) efforts to contain the virus to the city of Wuhan where it reportedly originated. But China is a country whose mass surveillance programs make the NSA blush—so it was no big thing to implement a policy of rigorous contact tracing there. You can’t lose civil liberties that you never had in the first place.
Australia is not China—yet. Therefore, its citizens aren’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to give the state greater power to track their movements. Privacy advocates will recoil on general principle, but there is a specific concern that the data will be given to or stolen by a third party which will use it for selfish, predatory, or just generally nefarious purposes.
In response, PM Morrison has promised that it will be “illegal” for anyone who is not a health official to use the data produced by the app. How that is any consolation is beyond me, but whatever: at least it will show up on a person’s AFP check.
“It will be illegal for information to go out of that data store to any other person other than that for whom the whole thing is designed, and that is to support the health worker in the state to be able to undertake the contact tracing,” Morrison said.
Who runs the servers on which the data will be stored? Yep, you guessed it: Amazon! Everyone’s favorite benevolent corporation—the boss of which managed to enlarge his personal fortune by $24 billion since the pandemic began—will secure and protect your sensitive location data. An old proverb about a fox guarding a hen house comes to mind.
The government also said it intends to keep the current social distancing guidelines in place until at least the middle of this month. The speed with which it does away with them will depend in part on how many people sign up for the Amazon contact tracing scheme. May God be with you.