Data is addictive, but should we surrender our Right to Privacy in order to control COVID-19?
Last week, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the imminent release of a Federal Government-developed mobile application to control coronavirus. The app will use geographic tracking of its users to identify, and communicate with, people who have come in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
Mr Morrison asked that all Australians sign up to the app and download it to their mobile phones. He likened this request to one from the Australian Government during the world wars, when it asked Australian citizens to purchase Government-issued war bonds to fund the war. Implicitly, in the case of the new mobile app request, Scott Morrison implied that he is asking Australians not to sacrifice their money this time, but their privacy for the sake of controlling COVID-19.
This announcement has significant implications for the privacy and rights of Australians citizens. It also raises the issue of how much a society should be willing to sacrifice in order to control the spread of a global pandemic.
Moreover, it raises many questions about the appropriate usage, guidelines and assurances that any government needs to make before asking its citizens to surrender their privacy for the common good.
An issue of purpose, time and temptation
The global coronavirus pandemic has forced governments, businesses and citizens all around the world into an unprecedented situation. But this is no excuse for a federal government to rush out a new technology that tramples over the privacy rights of its citizens, not just in the short term but potentially for many years to come.
In the rush to control the pandemic, we cannot gloss over important issues such as the protection of individual privacy and liberty in a modern society.
I’m at odds though, because on the other hand I am very pleased to see the Australian Government embrace technology to control the spread of this pandemic. It frustrates me to think of how underprepared our state and territory health services are to cope with this pandemic, not just in terms of physical hospital space but also in terms of technology and tools.
Our public health medical teams are being constrained by legacy systems, manual paper-based processes and a lack of integration between the various authorities needed to control this pandemic. There are obvious security concerns to consider, and we’ve already seen through initiatives such as My Health Record how easily data can be poached en masse and used for nefarious purposes.
But more specifically to progress this app, I believe the Government needs to answer two key questions:
- What purpose will the data be used for and how will this be controlled?
- How long will Australians be asked to keep the app and when will this “end”?
Firstly, the question around “purpose” is critical. The data collected from this mobile phone application has many more uses than simply tracking a person who may have come into contact with a COVID-19 carrier.
For example, the data could be used to track when Australians breach social distancing restrictions around the acceptable number of people who congregate for social function. Additionally, the data could be used to identify when a person travels too far away from their home, therefore breaching restrictions around essential travel.
Could this mean retroactive fines for having a barbecue or heading to a holiday house? We need clarity.
Data is addictive
How long Australians will be asked to keep this app and how long the government will keep the data, are absolutely imperative.
The Government will undoubtedly realise that collecting geo-tracking data on a significant proportion of the Australian population is highly valuable. This data could be incredibly useful in tracking criminal activity, such as who has been speeding in a car.
Think of a murder case and how tempting and valuable it would be to know who was within a certain vicinity of the crime’s time and place. This is all possible through historical geo-tracking data from mobile phones.
It is conceivable that at some point in the future, the Government may wish to access this geo tracking data to solve crimes, or other uses. The longer this data is play, the more opportunity and temptation to make further use of it.
Overall, I think all Australians are willing to make sacrifices to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in our country and around the world. We’re already doing this with our voluntary isolation, remote working and the restrictions we have placed on our social lives.
However, we all need to be careful as to the long-term implications of any measures, including the use of a geo-tracking app for an unspecified amount of time that might seriously affect all of our privacy rights in the future.
I am, and believe most would be, willing to support the roll out of this mobile phone application if the Government gives clear direction on these two questions and eliminates the risk of over-reach.