COVID-19 tracing app – privacy and efficacy in the spotlight

The question we should be asking about the COVID-19 tracing app, that the Australian Government is rolling out, is less about privacy and more about efficacy.

From what’s been publicly released, the app uses your device’s built-in Bluetooth. Think about when you connect your phone to your car radio or to a smart watch – your device both broadcasts and receives a Bluetooth code identifying the devices which it then uses to lock in a connection. Now by itself all that’s doing is broadcasting your device’s unique identifier and a human-friendly name and that’s not much use to anyone. What the app does is (a) associate the device details with additional information (your phone number) and (b) keeps a record of the devices it’s come near. That record can then be uploaded to the contact-tracing team and used to find the stranger you stood beside in the Woolworths queue ten days ago.

So the good part about that is that it makes contact-tracing significantly easier – in theory. How else are you going to find the person from the Woolworths queue? Even if I can remember all the possible places I went over the last ten days (and remember part of the point of the app is to relax lockdown) there’s no way to identify everyone else who was there. So that makes sense.

But the other side of things is the number of false positives generated by the incredibly blunt instrument being used. Was the person who’s Bluetooth ID the app harvested actually beside me in the queue, or just over by the bananas; or walking past outside on the street; or sitting in their car at the traffic lights? Once you have the app info you’re going to have to, as the default position, work through all the data it delivers – and that’s going to lead to a a lot of wasted work. And unless almost everyone has the app, the contact tracing team is still going to have to do all the old-fashioned tracing things too. So that’s going to generate a huge, a seriously huge, amount of work.

While doing this without the device may mean some things get missed, it’s not impossible to think that a focus on the more meaningful interactions that a person can remember is more useful than wading through a huge pile of dross. To some significant degree there’s a quality versus quantity question in play.

The very fact that there is no geolocation data included will make working through the list that much harder. Imagine the phone call: Hello, you came in contact with someone with the virus ten days ago but we can’t tell you where that happened because we just don’t know. Were you out shopping ten days ago, did you get take away coffee, did you take your child to school?

On the other hand in the Australian context if we’re really only getting about 50 new cases a day, maybe that’s a manageable amount of data for the contact-tracers to work their way through. That question of efficacy ought to be the starting point.

The question that seems to be dominating everyone’s thoughts, though, is about privacy. The Government assures us this is not a surveillance app. Now in one sense that’s fatuous – of course it’s a surveillance app, but it’s one being used for good. But in another sense they are quite right.

First the nature of the app as described doesn’t store geolocation data, and the data is only available upon request. So that’s not surveillance in the commonly accepted understanding of the term.

But more significantly, you’d have to be blind to not recognise that, if it wanted to, the Government already knows exactly where you are and pretty much exactly what you are doing. They don’t need you to download a new app for that. Your phone is already telling the world where it is – and that data is geolocated. Every time you use your credit card to buy something you make clear where you are and what you are doing. The list goes on. And leaks have made very clear that the “five eyes” governments are willing and able to make use of this.

So there’s no reason to start on a conspiracy theory about the COVID -19 tracking app when there’s a perfectly good conspiracy reality out there. Using the app is not going to seriously compromise your privacy any more than it already is.

Our former Deputy Prime Minister plays to his Sky News audience and says he won’t download the app because he doesn’t want the Government to know anything else about him. Take the word ‘app’ out of the discussion for a moment and think if he did the same thing when phoned by the contact-tracing team – ‘no, I won’t tell you who I came in contact with because the Government shouldn’t know more about me’. Would that be seen as even remotely acceptable? Now put the app back into the conversation: nothing changes ethically, there’s just an overlay of the fear of technology that provides a spurious reasoning.

In any case, sure you are overtly giving up some privacy, but that’s exactly sort the compromise we live with to be part of a functioning society. We give up privacy and freedoms very day because that’s how societies work. They build rules to ensure a bunch of strangers can get on.

And in this case if a short-term loss of privacy is what we sacrifice – in return for saving lives – surely that’s worth it?

One thought on “COVID-19 tracing app – privacy and efficacy in the spotlight

  • April 20, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    Your last sentence expresses my sentiments exactly. Shame, however, that privacy is a thing of the past.
    Love Marta


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