Privacy Irony Exposed With COVID-19 Tracing Fails

Photo credit: Stockphoto/AaronAmat

Citizens of Australia and Singapore have accepted social distancing rules as part of the collective effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But people in both countries are wary of downloading a tracking app that alerts them if they had been near someone who had tested positive for the virus.

The uptake of the Singapore-developed TraceTogether app presents as a major test of just how far people are prepared to go in trusting their Governments’ digital initiatives. So far, the results are underwhelming.

Even when presented with a major emergency, such as a global pandemic, a majority of people are still unwilling to allow Governments to use personal data to track their movements even though it may contribute to the — otherwise successful — public health campaigns in both countries.

Mistrust persists

While the technology exists to successfully track virus carriers and help the fight against the virus, mistrust is still a significant barrier.

All this is despite the assurances of both Governments on the use of personal data for people who download the app which requires a user’s phone number, name, age range and — in Australia — their postcode.

Using the app, according to Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth, would be the “icing on the cake” for Australia’s “very well oiled” effort in contact tracing. But it seems this is a bridge too far for the public.

Developed by Singapore Government agency GovTech, which has already developed several digital “smart nation” applications, the TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they are within two meters of another user who has tested positive to COVID-19 for at least 30 minutes.

Data exchanged between phones is encrypted and anonymized. It does not disclose identities even in the event of a positive alert.  The only data collected by the app is the user’s phone number, which is logged to health authorities who can contact people quickly if they have been in close proximity with an infected case.

Potentially, this can be part of a strategy of early intervention, and play a role in limiting the spread of the virus.

Despite this, just over 15% of Singaporeans have downloaded the app, even though the Government says that around 75% must do so for it to be truly effective as part of the contact tracing component of the COVID-19 fight.

In Australia, there has been significant pushback before the launch. The most extreme coming from former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who proclaimed: “I treasure the government knowing as little as possible about me.”

One of Joyce’s colleagues in the maverick wing of the right-wing National Party doubled down and said it was “too Big-Brotherish” and there was a “snowflake’ chance in hell” it would gain traction in Australia.

Ignorance wars

Much of this distrust is an education issue, and to be frank the Government is fighting an uphill battle against ignorance. The app does not use geo-location so could never track Barnaby Joyce’s movements.

Government services minister Stuart Robert has been out there promoting its use with a simple message: “If you confirm positive for the virus then that information goes to a secure national data store, then straight to state health authorities and then they can call people you’ve been in contact with, or they can call you if you’ve been in contact with someone.”

The Government referred the app to an independent body, the Cyber Security Co-operative Research Centre, which reported this week it had no major concerns and had found “nothing particularly disturbing” in its architecture.

“There’s not much here which is concerning,” said Rachael Falk, the Centre’s chief executive.

“There’s very little private data obtained. If it’s not shared with anyone other than local health authorities and it's being shared in a way that’s transparent with the public, I personally will download it.”

There is reportedly alternative technology available for the Australian app, developed jointly by Google and Apple, which contains no personal or identifying information.

But regardless of the technology, it seems unlikely that the requisite number of Australians required for the app to be effective would actually download anything at all.

Our inner bias

Australian eGovernment initiatives do not have an exemplary track record of late, so the Government is launching the app in an atmosphere of major digital distrust.

Maybe the reticence towards any COVID-19 app is a result of the public suspicion towards efforts in the health records area, and in the more controversial use of artificial intelligence to — sometimes erroneously — claim that social security recipients owe the Government money.

Societies, even ones as digitally savvy as Singapore and to a lesser extent Australia, obviously have some distance to go in persuading their citizens to take part in digital initiatives which have any collective benefit.

This has implications not only for public health and eGovernment, but for developing more tailored ecommerce and marketing in the private sector.

The irony is that while they may not know where you are at any given moment, digital giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook probably know much more about all of us than any information we might surrender to TraceTogether.

It seems we are relaxed for corporates to know our browsing history, our online purchases, and for artificial intelligence to make assumptions about our voting intentions so we can receive Facebook ads. But opting in to an app which might help defeat a major pandemic is too much for many of us.

Photo credit: Stockphoto/AaronAmat