Has eGovernment Become Another Word for Big Brother Surveillance?

Image credit: iStockphoto/ValeryBrozhinsky

Over the last decade, Australian Government agencies have invested heavily and transformed the digital experience of their customers, who are citizens and taxpayers.

Dealings with the taxation authorities are now online, as are social security services and health records. All are available on a smartphone app, and all that is required is an authenticating code.

In the most populous state of New South Wales, a relatively new agency — Services NSW — combines a range of services from drivers’ licenses and auto registration to education and helping people in need.

The agency uses AI to identify people who are most at risk of homelessness, poverty, and falling into patterns of behavior that will put them in touch with the criminal justice system.

Overall, Australia is ranked on the 2020 E-Government Development Index (EGDI) after South Korea and three Scandinavian and Baltic countries.

Two sides to eGovernment support

As with so many other aspects of life, COVID-19 has been an accelerator for eGovernment.

Existing channels in the taxation system were used to disburse emergency payments, QR codes became ubiquitous for contact tracing. Soon a person’s vaccination status will be downloadable and flashed from a smartphone on request.

There has, however, been a subtle change in the attitudes to eGovernment as the pandemic lockdowns have gone on, and these reflect the political divide.

On one side are people happy to wear masks, adhere to lockdown conditions, get vaccinated and use QR codes to check in wherever they go so they can assist with contact tracing.

These people take the attitude that society needs to pull together and endure some discomfort and get to the other side.

Facing off against them are the anti-vax groups who see the lockdowns as a restriction of their liberty and an escalation of Big Government determined to take away their freedoms.

This argument has permeated the digital space. Instead of seeing eGovernment measures as an aid to efficiency and the smooth functioning of society, people are beginning to see the eGovernment measures becoming tainted with a whiff of creeping Government control.

Has Big Brother gone mad?

Australians have been widely horrified by reports of the facial recognition technology being used in China and of the country’s social credit system.

With the pandemic, however, similar measures have been implemented in the name of keeping individuals and society safe.

For example, in South Australia, facial recognition technology used in the home quarantine system is being criticized for being ‘Big Brother gone mad.’

Instead of being shut in hotels in isolation for weeks, people can now quarantine at home as long as they download the state’s app, which uses geolocation and facial recognition software.

The app contacts people at random, asking them to provide proof of their location within 15 minutes.

If they fail to do that, South Australian Health will notify the police, who will conduct an in-person check.

Of course, the aim of the technology, which is just at the trial stage now, is to reduce reliance on hotel quarantine.

It is a preferable alternative to hotel quarantine for many people, and local health authorities are reporting excellent feedback.

This has not stopped many critics, who see it as another insidious attempt by the government to take away people’s liberty and privacy by stealth.

They also point to the fact that, in several states, police have — against the rules — acquired data from QR codes to investigate crimes instead of using it solely for contract tracing as initially intended.

Will Big Brother back down after the pandemic?

Many aspects of the response to COVID-19 have been implemented on the run and by necessity. They are not ideal in every way but have been designed as part of an emergency response.

The big test will be the extent to which many of these measures remain when — one day — the pandemic is a thing of the past.

Will we have to match a QR code and give our location to a Government database every time we enter a shop, café, or restaurant as we do now? Is matching facial recognition with the geolocation technology part of a creeping assault on our freedom of movement?

Just as many employees have kicked back at the surveillance technologies implemented by employers in response to increased remote working, citizens have a right to be wary of some of the digital precedents we have seen from the Government in the last year and a half.

If they help us see off the pandemic and get us back to normal, they will have served their purpose.

If they become a part of daily life, we’ll have no cause to criticize China.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/ValeryBrozhinsky