Why COVID-19 app concern is misplaced

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The Federal Government has launched a contact tracing app called “COVID Safe” and is asking Australian citizens to download it, enter their details and keep the app activated to assist in the fight against COVID-19.

The app utilises bluetooth technology to identify when users of the app come into contact with one another with a view to being able to trace people who come into contact with Coronavirus victims more quickly to combat community transmission.

The app is not compulsory but the Government has indicated that for its contact tracing efforts to be successful around 40% of Australians (approximately 10 million people) need to activate the app.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to utilise technology to ensure that we return to some level of normality quickly, many Australians have been overcome by conspiracy theories about what the Government will do with their data and whether or not their privacy is safe.

This columnist has downloaded the app and all it required was his name, postcode, phone number and age range. A person’s name is readily available on most electoral rolls and on other databases like RP Data, as is their address. Unless listed as private, most mobile phone numbers are also widely available to anyone who wants them. Further, The Government already has all of this information via Services NSW, Medicare, the ATO and many other government agencies. So we aren’t actually giving anyone any data that isn’t already floating out in the digital abyss anyway.

Critics of the app argue that it represents an unacceptable risk to people’s privacy because the app source code has not been released nor has any new legislation governing the use of the data the app collects.

This is a red herring however if one actually considers what the Government could realistically do with data like a person’s name (which it already has), phone number (which it already has) and address (which it already has). The answer is nothing they can’t already do. Besides, the Government has more pressing concerns than following the daily travels of Susan from Cambridge Park or tracking the shopping habits of Karen from Emu Plains.

What is particularly mind boggling about people refusing to utilise the app on privacy grounds is the amount of data that most people already voluntarily provide to third parties in their everyday lives without a second thought.

Anyone with a smartphone utilising apps like Facebook is most likely disclosing their location by virtue of a function within the Facebook program that usually needs to be manually disabled to prevent location disclosure.

Anyone who utilises Google Maps or Apple Maps has disclosed their location to private companies whose terms and conditions they probably accepted without reading. If you use the Snapchat app, it actually maps your exact location and publishes it to other Snapchat users unless the function is manually disabled.

Anyone who has ever utilised food delivery platforms such as Uber Eats or Menu Log have willingly disclosed their name, address, contact details and credit card or banking details to a company whose terms and conditions they probably haven’t read. The same can be said for your local Chinese takeaway and anyone who has ever attended a school fair and entered the jellybean guessing competition by recording their name, email address and phone number.

Sure – the Government needs to be responsible with the data it collects and ensure it is held securely, and within the ambits of existing privacy laws. The same can be said of any other entity that holds private data though.

The problem with the current hubbub it that it’s actually detrimental to the Government’s efforts to combat the disease and get life back to normal as soon as possible.

One of the concerns being expressed by criminal lawyers is whether or not the data captured by the app can be somehow used as evidence in criminal proceedings. In the columnist’s view, this is probably the only legitimate concern people should have about the app given we have not seen the relevant legislation as yet, but the reality is if you are not engaged in any criminal behaviour, you have nothing to worry about.

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