By ellymelly – If you enjoy my work, consider shouting me a coffee over on Ko-Fi
Australian citizens are people, not pets.
Our civil liberty is not hinged on adherence to big tech stalking apps or gifted by our elected representatives as a reward for good behaviour, it is a birthright. We are entitled to its possession in the same way that the government dips into our pockets and rustles around for loose change. They are allowed to rule at our expense and in return, the citizenry are permitted to run businesses, create capital and live out their lives with as little interference as physically possible to maintain the order of a functional civilisation.
At least, that was the original plan.
The tenuous agreement that a democracy has between the people and their government is the work of thousands of years of meticulous fine print; some of it written in ink while the rest comes in the form of scars cut into the national psyche. If we forget these lessons, they will be re-learned the hard way. I cannot be the only one growing tired of being treated like a criminal and offered various good behaviour bonds so long as I allow the government to strap on an ankle bracelet. Or worse, the school yard language used to drip-feed the public hope. Tonight’s headline? ‘Australia given an early mark’ – spare me.
It is impossible to believe that a student of Menzies or Mill would suggest inviting Big Brother to follow us around or keep tabs on who we meet. Censorship and surveillance are so dangerous that no government in history has passed the test of temptation. We call these, ‘slippery slopes’ and they are forbidden for good reason. When problem solving, the Prime Minister must look to answers that do not include playing around in areas where he was not invited.
Yes, everyone knows social media giants harvest information but much of what they do should leave them standing in front of a court answering difficult questions, not rewarded with a government contract. What’s the difference? Private companies, like individuals, are governed under the whip of law. Government writes law. This position of power is why they have special separation and boundaries. When the envoys of giant tech lobbyists came knocking at the door, a sensible leader would have taken a quick glance at their appalling history regarding consumer privacy and data collection and told them, ‘thanks but no thanks, this is not an Orwellian parody’.
Thousands of lives could be saved if we banned cars but we recognise that there are lines that cannot be crossed and infringements on freedom which are never justifiable. It is the paradox of the bird in the cage – or are we a canary in democracy’s mine? Trust does not outweigh principle. When the common people see negligence like the Ruby Princess fiasco or flights continuing to zoom in, they seriously question the basic common sense of those who are chasing them through the park with sirens.
The CovidSafe app is a poor solution to the problem presented. Governments are in the habit of tossing taxpayer money at technology to show that they have ‘done something’ while managing to avoid doing really difficult things with a proven track record – such as strict quarantine on external borders (which hurts China’s feelings) and focusing on testing and releasing all high risk individuals (which highlights their lack of resources).
In exchange for the app, the government is now in a position to divert blame for the economic shutdown onto those who’d rather not have the government nesting in their phones. When borders re-open, instead of shonky quarantine the next outbreak will be the fault of non-subscribers to overreach. It is an elegant answer to bad political headlines and the inevitable backlash that will follow as a new Great Depression starts – we might not starve, but we’ll definitely be deprived and looking for a scape goat. Advisors understand that there is a political reckoning coming and that revenge is likely to be exacted at the ballot box. Better that the people are set upon each other, rather than those who caused the carnage.
Let us have a look at why the app is a poor choice of blackmail that will not stand up to the scrutiny of time.
For one, there was never any need to collect private data if your interest was in creating a notification system for individuals. A simple unique and private code issued upon download, hosted by the app is more than sufficient to match and notify. Instead of storing phone numbers and names, the app could build a list of these unique numbers and alert users directly without any need for a public servant call centre in the middle of the system. Not only are you anonymous and the government cut out of the deal, but the data hosted on Amazon’s servers also becomes meaningless. CovidSafe has phone numbers, age ranges, and post codes – all of which are collected for the purpose of statistical review, whether politicians are prepared to admit to it or not.
Every programmer knows that you only collect what you intend to use. With Apple and Google developing their own apps, one wonders if they envision sharing this data amongst themselves in the interest of ‘public health’.
Instead of a fast, instantaneous app notification system – we have a clunky product with public service oversight making decisions about who to notify and under what priority. That choice should be yours, the person best suited to know if you’re in a high risk situation. Another problem comes with gatekeeping data – that is, the point at which crucial information is put in. Certifying a particular person is Covid19 positive should include an input screen from a medical professional to link back to a test batch to confirm its authenticity. In addition, if it is possible to lie at a data collection point, the data set is worthless. I cannot stress how important this is if the government intends to make sweeping policy on the back of it.
The cracks in its design left open for manipulation, misuse or incitement of panic are frighteningly huge.
This is before we get into the eccentricities of the virus. Renowned for its extremely long layover period and over 97% asymptomatic presentation, this newbie out of China lives on surfaces for weeks and spreads like the Spanish Flu. With a 15 minute proximity alert on bluetooth, its first instance of collection is missing the most common points of transmission (including those that cough on you as they pass by) and then does not store enough child-tree iterations to be meaningful. Indeed, the app was meant to collect data from a 1.5m distance but programmers testing the source code have reported that it collects all phones within bluetooth range – which is about 30 feet.
Imagine you are a city worker. Consider your normal day of public transport, work, shopping and social life. You do this for two weeks while infected. For the app to work as intended, it would have to notify every person you come into contact for that period of time and the people they contact and the people they contact and the people they contact etc.
When was the last time it took you 15 minutes to get a cup of coffee? CovidSafe is blind to the majority of business interactions it is designed to facilitate while logging phones lingering 30 feet from you, beyond the virus’ reach creating a pool of bad data.
There are only two natural outcomes. Either the system pushes way too many people toward testing centres by notifying them of potential contact (where they also increase their chances of coming into contact with the virus) or people are lulled into a false sense of security thinking the app is a definitive protective blanket. To use this shaky app as an excuse to hold the foot down on our economy’s throat is deranged.
In reality, with or without the app, the better approach is for people presenting symptoms to take themselves to medical facilities for testing and to make sure that we have quarantine hospitals. That last part is the most important going forward – separating out our medical system so that infectious diseases are no longer hosted in our regular hospitals. That is hard and expensive so instead we’re thrown an app. We should have done this a long time ago but the investment required mucks up the treasurer’s spreadsheet.
If we really want to collect data on the virus and work to understanding its spread, we would be better off throwing money at a computer system for those diagnosing Covid19 cases in which medical professionals enter a test batch, the positive ID, a patient’s age, underlying condition and medications without their name. This anonymous data contains what is required to build a picture of confirmed (rather than assumed) cases and if people die, we may begin to learn why as patterns in the data emerge. There must also be a crackdown on death certificates incorrectly listing the cause of death. Again, private data is not required to complete the task but it is desired.
The CovidSafe app does have a function – though it is not what its marketing suggests. When the borders open, as they must, it will track the rate of outbreak. This is different to saving lives and presents itself in the form of valuable information to big pharmaceuticals. Expect it to be sold. These are the same people who hope to make a fortune on vaccines that may or may not be made mandatory. Now, I am all for vaccines but never ones that are rushed through or come with the hashtags #Gates, #WHO or #MadeInChina.
While we are berated with this app, political leaders are giving up on the soul of Australia’s lifestyle. The short term may present choppy waters but there is too much insistence that our laid back society is lost forever. You know what I want to hear the government say? ‘Yes OF COURSE we are going to return Australia to the way of life you are used to. Your freedoms WILL be restored as quickly as possible. We have NO PLANS to keep draconian control of you.’ We have survived worse pandemics than this. Those dark times were seen as tasks to survive, not a watershed on liberty.
The virus is here. While ever it runs rampant across the globe Australia only really has two choices – stay in a cage or deal with the death rate. There are better solutions for data gathering. There are better ways to structure our health response. There is no need to crack open the door to big tech, already guilty of helping China construct a smartphone surveillance system. Do not tell us that we have to submit, without question or complaint, to half-baked ideas cooked up by the same group of politicians that have made a hash out of our economic response and spent the last decade moving to greater censorship and control.
The rule of law is a fragile thing. There are only two ways to convince a country to adhere – threat or trust and there is not a lot of trust left after watching grandmothers fined for sitting on park benches. We live in a time where those who could least afford it have had their ability to survive taken off them by order of the government. Wealthy personalities wonder what’s so bad about sitting on the couch for 8 weeks but others see their jobs, homes and futures set on fire.
In a true free market, capitalist systems can adapt their way out of a mess but when a blanket ban is put on innovation, the market starves to death. Most agree that health emergencies warrant such measures temporarily (though I fear we may have cried wolf on this one) but that is no excuse for the ensuing economic carnage and confusion.
The moment the government took control of the market they became financially responsible for its survival.
They have been skipping school on this one by playing around with convoluted rules, feedback loops and inconsistent advice leaving businesses in danger of accidentally breaking Fairwork regulation. While they dig themselves deeper into debt they soon discover that the government has found a way to avoid coughing up the promised help. Those who tried to do the right thing are treated to a chorus of Union shills accusing them of rorting the system and press outlets demanding that they keep their employees on the payroll. How – and with what money? These people are turning off.
JobSeeker and JobKeeper have been failures of concept put together by public servants with no personal risk to their inadequacies. Entire industries cut down to their knees haven’t even made it onto the sketch pad while economists wander in on government purse strings and mull over tax reform with half an eyebrow cocked in the direction of raising the GST.
The last thing Australia needs is the government open in the background, draining our battery.