How much of our personal privacy and freedom of movement are we prepared to sacrifice to fight the spread of COVID-19 and have our lives returned to normal?
And how do we safeguard against the laws becoming permanent, and like meta data retention laws being used for a wide range of ‘unintended’ ways to monitor and control the population?
These are some of the questions being asked as the Federal Government plans to introduce mobile tracking technology to track the movements of people who have tested positive to coronavirus, as well as the people they come into contact with.
The Government says the app will be introduced within the next few weeks, as part of a strategy forward, ‘a way out’ from the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced mandatory economic shutdown and severe social restrictions across the nation.
The app ‘TraceTogether’ was first developed and used in Singapore, where there has been a 20% uptake in the technology. Singaporean authorities have claimed it has assisted in limiting the spread of COVID-19.
With that in mind, the Morrison Government is now working closely with Singapore to develop a uniquely Australian version.
It says that in the first instance, activating the app will be voluntary and the government is aiming for a 40% uptake. The concern, however, is that this phase will be followed by moves towards making it compulsory, and extending it over time to enable broader monitoring of citizens.
The app will be installed on smartphones, and using Bluetooth technology, be able to record movement and contact with others.
In selling the idea to the public, the PM says the app will offer a more ‘efficient’ way of tracing the virus in the community’ – by accurately identifying contamination ‘hot spots’ and therefore enabling the government to respond quickly to those areas with testing.
What’s more, and brushing aside privacy concerns, Mr Morrison says that digital tracking means less of a reliance being placed on people’s memories about where they have been and who they’ve been in contact with.
Mr Morrison says that if the rate of community transmission is reduced, some of the present socials could be lifted. Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has backed the PM in the move.
But while the government is talking up the ‘upsides’, we also need to consider the very serious downsides.
At what price?
Despite providing assurances that only ‘health authorities’ would have access to the personal information provided by the app, time and again we’ve seen the introduction of privacy incursions that have been ramped up over time, and even led to widescale data breaches.
My Health Record is just one example of a government database which suffered an alarming number of breaches, even in the face of government’s assurances about privacy.
In 2018, the South Australian Government was forced to shut down guest access to its online land titles registry, after an unidentified overseas ‘guest user’ was able to download the personal details of more than a million Australian home owners.
We’ve also been witness to ‘rogue’ police officers who’ve accessed the private information of citizens unlawfully and misused it for personal gain.
And the greatest threat to our personal privacy in recent years, the Metadata laws which were originally spruiked as being necessary to catch terrorists and organised criminals, have actually proven to have been used instead, by not just the AFP, but a range of law enforcement agencies and even local councils for ‘unintended’ purposes.
The need for safeguards
Once this technology is implemented, it is very difficult to roll back. People need to understand what they are consenting too – what type of data is recorded, who it is disseminate to, how it is protected, as well as the specific content and breadth of the proposed new rules, including the potential for expanded use in the future.
Many questions remain unanswered, and Attorney-General Christian Porter has been tasked with looking into these before the technology is rolled out. But given the rapid rate of the introduction of social controls by the executive, without parliamentary debate or scrutiny, it seems certain that many concerns will be overlooked.
Indeed, there is a need now more than ever for parliamentary scrutiny over the passage of controls passed under the guise of protecting the community against COVID-19.