The Australian government has announced plans to make a Covid-19 contact tracing app available to all Australians. The privacy and security concerns that inevitably accompany such initiatives are now being debated as the government moves into ‘sales pitch’ mode to convince Australians to download and activate the app.
But the government has a hard hill to climb to reach its goal of a 40% voluntary take-up of the app to make it effective. While government ministers may be calling for a ‘Team Australia’ moment, many Australians will ask whether the government is really on their side. Why?
The Australian government has some of the most extraordinary powers of surveillance in the Western world. Australia is unique in having laws that require technology companies (eg. Facebook, Google and telcos) operating in Australia to provide encrypted information personal information to government authorities without any judicial oversight (eg. warrants).
Recent police raids on the offices and homes of journalists who have uncovered information that does nothing more than embarrass the government have made headlines.
Citizens will rightly question whether their government that is seeking them to be part of the team is actually on their side.
Not surprisingly some of the right wing members of the government have raised questions about the Covid contact tracing app. The hyprocrisy of these politicians belly-aching about not wanting to share their personal information with the government but being part of the government (and also the Cabinet) that approved Australia’s uniquely tough surveillance laws would be astounding if not for the fact that it is par for the course.
The benefits of the Covid contact tracing app in helping the country’s exit from the Great Lockdown are clear. It sits crucially between the necessary testing regime (where Australia has been a world leader) and the need to isolate individuals who are exposed to the virus. An efficient contact tracing regime will be critical in avoiding the need for multiple lockdowns over the next months and (perhaps) years.
However the app will only really be useful in situations where people are mixing in close proximity with people outside of their immediate social circles. The app reportedly only logs contacts for people being within 1.5m for a total of 15 minutes. Situations where this does not involve immediate families and friends will mainly be public venues and facilities such as restaurants, cafes and public transport.
As a result the app should be extended beyond its current scope to include the ability for it to act as a ‘ticket’ for Australians to start resuming a normal life without social distancing. Venues and facilities where social distancing is impossible could make it a condition of entry that patrons have the app installed and activated. A quick, secure method for checking a phone’s Covid tracking status should be included in the design.
Many such venues and facilities will struggle to re-open their businesses if the public is unsure of the ability of the health system to cope with new outbreaks. Venues can decide to make the app a condition of entry to help build confidence and entice more of the public to download and use the app.
Such an approach could benefit the government in reaching and exceeding its goal of 40% take-up. A positive ‘sales pitch’ is always much stronger than relying on some nebulous concepts of ‘Team Australia’.
The Australian government has a tough sell with the Covid contact tracing app. Its track record of increasing its surveillance powers sits uncomfortably with its notion of invoking ‘Team Australia’.
Better to enlist the help of all those businesses who are looking to reopen their businesses that are currently impacted by social distancing.