Last week was Privacy Awareness Week, which is a curious irony, given the current dilemma faced by millions of Australians – to download or not to download the Federal government’s CovidSafe App.
So far, approximately 5.7 million Australians – yours truly included – have taken the leap and downloaded the app. But controversy abounds nonetheless, and there are still many who are deeply concerned the app will harvest private information to be used by government in a Big Brother-esque, post pandemic Australia.
A torrid debate is currently raging around the world. Last week, the New York Times reported that in Britain, privacy concerns have hampered the rollout of similar technology, pitting the UK government against Silicone Valley giants, Apple and Google, which are pushing a competing design. Ironically, while Boris Johnson’s government insists more can be learned about the virus by collecting lots of information in a centralised database that will pinpoint emerging infection hotspots, Apple and Google have raised privacy concerns about that approach, arguing for a decentralised alternative that will better safeguard personal data. The two tech companies, which between them control the software that drives virtually every smartphone on the planet, are refusing to provide access to a Bluetooth signal on iPhones and Android phones that is vital to measure proximity.
In taking that stance, they have found some support from leading academics, security experts and privacy groups that argue a centralised database creates too much potential for abuse. The U.K.’s top privacy regulator, Elizabeth Denham, contends that a decentralised model should be a “starting point” for contact tracing, and last month a statement of 170 top British scientists opposed the government’s current design, warning “It is vital that, when we come out of the current crisis, we have not created a tool that enables data collection on the population or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance.”
Others have warned the British app simply will not work effectively without Apple and Google technology. Germany recently moved to the Apple-Google version, as did Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Carly Kind (née Nyst), the Director of the London Based Ada Lovelace Institute, a policy research group focused on technology, was quoted in the New York Times last week as saying “A bad app is definitely worse than no app,” and the director of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford University, Luciano Floridi, warned against “looking at technology as the saviour.” Floridi said the app could only be a small component in a much larger approach, adding “Hopefully, it will not do any harm.”
Meanwhile, we Aussies, perhaps in fairly typical Antipodean fashion, have blithely embraced the technology, content in the thought that, if we can help each other in the process, we’re willing to surrender some of our privacy. To me, on balance, it seemed a small sacrifice, given the amount of data we all daily put out through social media platforms.
Big Brother has certainly been watching me for a long time now. Google knows when I walk to my car in the morning, where I stop for my morning coffee, and what route I take to work; it even tells me how congested the roads will be, and what time I’m likely to get there. If the government knowing all that same stuff might just help save some lives, I guess I can live with that.
I’m also somewhat reassured by the IT and legal professionals who have delved into the CovidSafe app, and come up with the following summary:
- The app cannot track your location – it stores your proximity location data (COVIDSafe will only detect Bluetooth signals of other phones that have the app installed and have Bluetooth enabled), and that data is kept on your phone for only 21 days;
- The app requires the user to provide consent, at the time they download the app, to the collection of their personal information. If you test positive for COVID-19, a health official will contact you and ask for your consent to upload the contact data into the National Data Store;
- Once you delete the app, it stops collecting proximity data; and
- If you test positive then, with your further consent, data is stored in the National Data Store in Australia, and will be stored until the end of the pandemic.
Like most other Australians, I’ve been handing over mountains of my personal data for years, often for no other reason than convenience and entertainment. (If you don’t believe me, check your privacy settings – I’m sure you’ll be more than a little surprised). Now, in these unprecedented times, where the information collected may actually have a real and positive impact on the health and well-being of others, I feel like I’m doing my small part and am happy to give up a little bit more.