Australia's technology response to COVID-19 Global Voices


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This article by Samantha Floreani is part of Pandemic of Control, a series aimed at fostering public debate on the rise of digital authoritarianism in the Asia-Pacific region amid COVID-19. The Pandemic of Control is an initiative by his EngageMedia in partnership with CommonEdge. An edited version of this article has been republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

In early 2020, COVID-19 took hold in Australia. Government policies have evolved to become “Zero COVID” implemented through mask wearing, social distancing and, in many cases, lockdowns. Suddenly, nearly every aspect of our lives has moved online.

In times of crisis, governments are often hasty to wield additional powers, many of which endanger human rights, and a return to relative calm is seldom reversed. The ubiquitous technology of the digital age, combined with a pandemic that requires us to isolate ourselves from each other, has plowed the soil of a future where digital surveillance and control can blossom. called on governments to uphold human rights in all technological responses to COVID-19. Lawyer and digital rights activist Lizzie O’Shea said:

It is advocating and enforcing politics of care and solidarity, not coercion and fear, that will get us through this virus.

Digital technology can play a key role in supporting a robust public health response. The question is not whether to use technology, but how to use it. The technological choices made by Australian state and federal governments during this period say a lot about their priorities and ideologies. The last two years reflect the trend. Rather than adopting technology to enhance care and support for those in charge, the Australian government prioritized politically high-profile projects based on an ideology of oversight and control.

This article examines four technology-based government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. These, combined with a avoidance of transparency and a reluctance to engage with technical experts and civil society, ultimately lead to a range of technical “solutions,” ranging from completely ineffective to aggressively punitive. introduced a policy.

Police Drones and Mobile Surveillance

In late 2020, Australian media reported that police in Victoria and New South Wales were using drones to monitor and enforce COVID-19 regulations in public places. This caused a great deal of anxiety among the public about their surveillance capabilities, and Victoria Police publicly tried to reassure people. In addition to this, mobile camera surveillance units were deployed throughout parks and other public spaces, and CCTV was repurposed to crack down on his COVID-19 restrictions, much to the dismay and outrage of the public. Many criticized the government’s aggressive and punitive approach to monitoring and fines individuals who violated lockdown rules, criticizing the government’s powers without adequate protection, transparency, or accountability requirements. expressed concern that it exceeded

Contact tracing and the COVIDSafe app

In April 2020, the federal government released the COVIDSafe contact tracing app. It was accompanied by swaths of political rhetoric to persuade people to download it. and overheard patriotic calls to join ‘Team Australia’. The Australian public was told they needed a 40% intake. This figure, as it will become clear later, was without any basis. More than 7 million people downloaded the app, but downloads fell short of expectations due to mistrust of the government’s technical capabilities, mishandling of privacy and security issues, and technical flaws in the app’s design. We did not reach our goal.

This app is designed to use Bluetooth to detect and record the unique identifiers of nearby phones (if you’re also using the app). If a person tested positive for her COVID-19, a list of all contacts was sent to the government to notify those who might be at risk. Importantly, I’ve found that the app doesn’t work unless it’s left open. This was a fundamental flaw and it was impractical to keep it open all the time.

Another major concern was the app’s centralized model. This model required the government to act as an intermediary and process all personal information collected. Recognizing the potential for mass surveillance and other misuse of data, privacy and security advocates strongly recommended that governments take a decentralized approach.

Nonetheless, digital rights advocates have successfully pushed governments to build privacy protections into the laws governing apps, including restrictions that prevent the use of data for purposes other than public health.

Nearly two years after its launch, a report assessing the app’s effectiveness showed that it added little value to traditional contact tracing systems and, in some cases, actually increased the workload of contact tracers. it was done. The app costs AUD 7.7 million (USD 5.17 million) to develop and an additional AUD 60,000-75,000 (USD 40,000-50,000) per month to maintain. As of December 2021, the Australian government has refused to release data on how many people continue to use the app.

QR code check-in system

In November 2020, a new mechanism to “check-in” at stores and venues using smartphones and QR codes will appear. However, the deployment of this system has been chaotic. Each state establishes its own requirements, which vary significantly. In Victoria, for example, the government initially required businesses to collect personal information about their customers, but there was no guidance or support on how to do so securely. As a result, many small businesses with little or no technical security experience have rushed to outsource their check-in requirements to third-party registration platforms. The personal information of millions of Australians was at risk of being collected, used and sold by various third party registration platforms for purposes completely separate from public health. Many are owned by companies whose primary business is data. .

Eventually, the state government rolled out its own mechanism for businesses to register official QR codes that work with government-run smartphone applications. While this ameliorated the initial problem, it didn’t solve the countless people who shared personal information in the meantime and are now receiving spam text messages.

It also continues to raise concerns about government agencies capturing and using data collected through check-in systems. On at least six occasions, police have used Check-In’s data for law enforcement purposes, and Australia’s Privacy Commissioner has condemned the move.

home quarantine app

In October 2021, South Australia announced a home quarantine smartphone app trial. The app is designed to enforce compliance with home quarantine rules using geolocation and facial recognition software. Following the trial, other states around Australia also announced they would be trialing the app.

Technology experts, human rights lawyers, and civil society have expressed concern about the use of such invasive technologies without strong privacy protections. Digital Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights Law have jointly sent a letter to Australia’s health minister to apply the same standard of protection law to other technological responses to COVID-19 as was applied to the COVIDSafe app I requested


Despite calls from affected communities for more support, the government has prioritized a response that emphasizes a punitive and surveillance-based approach. In doing so, the Australian government will use its social license (the informal power given to government by people on the basis of trust and confidence to see us through a major health crisis) to their own political I abused it because of the agenda.

Looking back two years later, it’s not clear whether these approaches and civil liberties concessions were worth it, or even effective. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Australian government has approached the use of digital technology from an ideological perspective, relying heavily on control and oversight and setting aside the politics of care and support.

It is important to learn from this experience so that we can use digital technology to respond in a more effective and rights-respecting way in the future. As advocates warned at the beginning of 2020, embedding human rights in the technological response to crises will not only ensure the success of crises, but will also ensure a society that will be happy to participate in a step back in time. is also essential. Relatively calm. Australia would do well to heed this lesson.

*Samantha Floreani works at the intersection of human rights, technology and feminism. She currently serves as her lead program for Digital Rights Her Watch, advocating for human rights in the digital age. She was previously a Privacy and Technology Specialist at Salinger Privacy, a Trustee of the Australian Privacy Foundation, and her Program Director for Code Like a Girl.