There has never been a time in human history where vast amounts of information were so readily available, yet the idea of what constitutes being ‘well-informed’ has never been more hotly debated.
The endless stream of opinion from experts, contrarians, and celebrities has forced the masses to choose a side, and anyone with opposing views is now either viewed as an enemy or simply written off as being ill-informed.
Public levels of distrust in the government are at an all-time high in Australia, and calls from the Prime Minister for all Australians to download an app that shares some of their personal information with government has definitely raised some eyebrows.
The purpose of the COVIDsafe app is to provide the government with an understanding of all of the people that individuals who test positive for coronavirus have come into contact with.
This process is known as contact tracing.
According to Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, having this information would also fast-track the easing of restrictions.
As of Wednesday morning, 2.8 million Australians have downloaded the app onto their phones, which is still more than 8 million people shy of the government’s intended target.
Soaring mortality rates in aged care facilities across the globe have provided the masses with a window into the devastation that can be caused by COVID-19.
Yet despite this, 60% of respondents to a recent HelloCare poll – of an audience which is primarily made up of aged care workers – revealed that they would not be downloading the app, with reasoning ranging from fears over data security through to having an incompatible device.
Although feelings of trepidation regarding the app may be justified given the government’s history of tech fails and data breaches, Senior Communications Lecturer at Deakin University, Dr. Toija Cinque sat down with HelloCare to provide some answers.
Big Brother Is Watching
Surveillance of citizens is nothing new, but unfortunately, neither are scandals that involve governments and the collection of data from their citizens.
Dr. Cinque believes that high-profile stories that exposed government data collection breaches, and the misuse of this information, have played a major role in shaping public opinion in recent years.
She also revealed that the vast majority of the public have no idea of the privacy implications of social media apps like Facebook who have also become embroiled in data-sharing scandals in recent times.
“It seems that the socio-convenient apps we download, as well as those that specifically offer measures to increase our individual and collective security, are actually giving up our privacy and creating new datasets to be exploited – often by unknown entities without our knowledge, nor informed consent, and the risk continues in perpetuity,” said Dr. Cinque.
“Even when digital devices are switched off. they are actually always on and collecting, curating and learning from the data we post online and even the data we do not.”
“Bear in mind, however, that although the information people choose to put online is done so voluntarily, it is hard, if not impossible not to participate when socialising, employment, education, and multiple other activities and service go online.”
“Now, our safety might depend on such activity.”
Safe and Secure?
The specific data being collected by the COVIDsafe app is the user’s name, age range, postcode, phone number, information about testing positive for coronavirus, and contact identification of those around you who also have the app.
Upon testing positive for coronavirus, Bluetooth data is then uploaded to the server so that the government can identify any contacts that need to be notified. This data will be held by the federal government on an Amazon Web Services server in Australia.
Although Scott Morrisson has claimed that only state health authorities that are involved in contact tracing will have access to this data, Dr. Cinque believes that this is not necessarily the only outcome.
“While we know now that COVIDSafe data will remain in Australia, it is held by Amazon Web Services (AWS) in the United States, meaning that they can be legally compelled to provide that data to law enforcement under the US CLOUD Act (2018),” said Dr. Cinque.
“Then there is the issue too of Bluetooth security. COVIDSafe app uses Bluetooth to allow proximal devices to connect to each other over the air and lasting however long both devices are in use.”
“Researchers have long underscored that the risks of Bluetooth security – and potential rewards for malicious hackers are only growing.”
“As Bluetooth use goes beyond consumer settings (‘smart’ home devices such as speakers, televisions, fitness trackers and other wearables) to be increasingly used by corporate enterprises and governments for large-scale use in their offices, industrial control environments and our hospitals, then tension mounts and begs the question going forward – what happens after the return to ‘normal’; how much of our rights to privacy has been permanently eroded?”
The Department of Health has promised to make the COVIDsafe app’s source-code publicly available, which allows members of the public to see whether or not the app has been collecting information without consent.
To date, the source-code is still not available despite already being downloaded by almost three million people and there is currently a bill before Parliament regarding legislation that will govern the COVIDsafe app.
“My recent study has found that respondents are highly active on the internet and even though they have a clear understanding of what privacy means, few take actions to guard it,” said Dr. Cinque.
“Few took informed steps to ensure their online behaviours were thoughtfully shared or that their privacy settings were regularly maintained.”
“So, we have a contemporary discourse of the ‘voluntary servitude’ within surveillance systems through the concept of ‘bargaining’ (making a choice and accepting the outcome/s as ‘worth it’) – a trade-off for convenience.”
“In this case, many are showing that they are keen to trade-off concerns of what information is being gathered, who has access to it, for how long and what purposes with a return to ‘normal’ and being allowed to go outside more often and not least, improved mental health and potentially saving lives.”
How Effective Will It Be?
Although Singapore launched the first-of-its-kind contact tracing app on March 20, gauging the success of this initiative is difficult.
At the time of launch, the city-state of roughly 5.7 million people had just 385 cases of infections. Since then, Singapore has been in lockdown and now has more than 15,000 cases of infection, but only 20% of Singaporeans have actually downloaded the TraceTogether app.
Although Australia is targeting 40% of the population with its version of the app, Dr. Cinque warns that attaining this lofty goal does not guarantee any success.
“Research from Oxford University suggests that if 60% of the population take up a COVID mobile tracking app then it has some merit,” said Dr. Cinque.
“The Australian Commonwealth Government believes that 40% affords some benefit, but they have not disclosed the modelling for their claim.”
“It cannot, however, be a replacement for good hygiene nor maintaining social distance, so COVIDSafe users will need to remain vigilant.”
Photo Credit – iStock – ampueroleonardo