Greens councillor Jonathan Sri: ‘Why I won’t be installing the COVID-19 surveillance app’

April 27, 2020

I definitely will not be installing the COVID-19 surveillance app.

One of the most interesting aspects of the public debate about it is how it has been framed as a question of “personal privacy” vs “civic duty to help preserve collective safety”.

But this framing obscures the negative downstream impacts of embracing this kind of technology are not evenly distributed across society.

It’s disappointing that much of the conversation about privacy and data security has distracted from other equally important conversations about expanding state control and interference in our lives.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. This is a tool of state surveillance. Let’s not close our eyes to that. Yes, it is being justified on health and safety grounds, but so are pretty much all surveillance measures.

2. I don’t believe there’s a government conspiracy to use the data for other purposes. Right now, the politicians and government officials implementing this genuinely don’t intend to use it for law enforcement and population control. But history shows us that just because something is introduced for one reason, doesn’t mean it can’t, and won’t, be repurposed later.

3. Many of the public health grounds used to justify the introduction of this app will remain relevant for several years to come. COVID-19 is not going to be eradicated entirely any time soon, and there may well be other viral pandemics in future.

Although this is described as a temporary measure, it’s foreseeable that future versions of disease control contact tracing apps will become a more permanent fixture of society if this initial trial is embraced uncritically.

We need to ask whether we are comfortable with contact-tracking technology becoming a routine part of our lives, indefinitely.

We need to ask whether we’re comfortable with a society where certain businesses and services seek to gate-keep access based on whether people have installed the app. “Do you have the app installed? No? Sorry, we can’t let you into this shopping centre for safety reasons.”

If we’re not comfortable about that kind of world, what measures are being introduced to protect against discrimination, and how effective will they be? We already have laws against racial, sexual and religious discrimination, but we know such discrimination still occurs.

4. The structure and culture of the modern nation state means that individual actors within government will struggle to resist demands not to expand access to contact tracing app data later on. Yes, there will initially be checks and balances against other government departments accessing the information, but it’s not hard to adjust privacy policies and government regulations down the track.

Let’s say, hypothetically, a police chief approaches a politician saying that there’s an epidemic of ice dealing in a particular community where a powerful drug dealer is exploiting vulnerable people. “We can bust them if we can just get access to data that shows us who everyone has been talking to.” A lot of politicians are going to have trouble saying “no” to something like that.

It is not inevitable, but there’s a very high likelihood of mission creep with this kind of technology.

Although data is stored locally on your phone, and you are theoretically in control of it when it’s uploaded, the government could still seize your phone to access the data.

It’s also possible that contact records that other phones have uploaded (which includes your phone) could be cross-checked against other data sets (such as location pings) to build a broader picture of where you've been and who you've met with even without you having to provide consent.

5. Our legal system is sometimes unjust. The government has a track record of misusing data (remember, they’re still going after innocent people for bogus Centrelink Robodebt claims).

Not everyone gets access to a good lawyer and a fair trial. Not everyone is given equal attention by the police and government departments (let’s not forget about Mohamed Haneef). Not everyone has the luxury of living a life where you never need to break the law to survive.

In Brisbane, sleeping rough in a public park is still technically an offence. Assisting a terminally ill person with euthanasia is an offence. Until recently, procuring an abortion was an offence.

Even more crucially, our legal system is designed to encourage some lifestyles and cultures while delegitimising and criminalising others.

Reading some of the critiques of “proactive policing”, or rather, “predictive policing” used by the NSW police (where they target Aboriginal kids with heightened surveillance and heavy policing on the basis that they assume Aboriginal teenagers are more likely to commit crime) gives me very little faith that surveillance technologies are going to be used judiciously and equitably.

While many people will feel comfortable with the line, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear”, that’s not the case for everyone. Some people who’ve done nothing wrong do still have good reason to fear over-zealous police enforcement and state control.

6. Both major parties have a track record of abusing human rights and bending and breaking their own rules for political gain. They have betrayed the public’s trust many times in the past. Even as I write this, they are illegally imprisoning innocent refugees without a release date or plan, simply because they think it wins them votes.

7. Yes, being able to quickly trace contacts helps reduce the spread of a pandemic.

You know what else helps reduce the spread of a pandemic?

• Providing stable, affordable housing for everyone and giving workers decent sick leave and conditions so they don’t HAVE to risk going to work sick.

• Properly resourcing our healthcare system.

• Providing subsidised high-speed internet so everyone can easily access essential health information and so it’s easier for more people to work from home.

It is possible to trace contacts and manage a pandemic without handing over data about who everyone has been hanging out with.

We are told this app is necessary and essential to improve health outcomes and save lives, like we’re bad citizens if we don’t take one for the team. Meanwhile, the government refuses to support other necessary health programs that would also save lives (don’t even start me on the funding and quality of healthcare in remote Aboriginal communities).

8. People are installing this app because they’re being told it’s the right thing to do. But we’re not hearing from the most oppressed and marginalised voices who will be the ones bearing the brunt of increasing state surveillance.

The government is pressuring us into signing up with promises that we can end the shutdown sooner if enough people install it. All this is happening in a fast-paced political context where there’s no time, or space, to discuss the broader ramifications of this measure.

Some health experts are saying it’s necessary because we’re in an emergency. Health experts were also trotted out to justify the Northern Territory Intervention into Aboriginal communities and we know what a damaging farce that turned out to be.

Disease control experts are great at identifying what measures can quickly be implemented to control a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean they’re also experts at understanding the broader ethical and practical impacts of those measures and weighing up the pros and cons.

Outside of a pandemic emergency, the introduction of technology like this would be the subject of months of heated debate and cross-examination, but it’s being rushed in and lots of people seem to be signing up simply because they’re sick of being stuck at home.

9. Yes I’m well aware that various government agencies and tech corporations already collect a huge amount of data about us and use our devices to spy on us. It’s why I don’t broadcast much of my personal life on Facebook. It’s one of the reasons I usually keep location services on my smartphone turned off, and often leave my phone in another room whenever I’m holding a meeting with other residents to plan peaceful protests.

But just because we’re already enmeshed in a wide, deep web of government and big business surveillance doesn’t mean we should uncritically embrace further entanglement.

[Jonathan Sri is a Queensland Greens councillor for The Gabba in Brisbane. This article is abridged with permission from a status he posted on his Jonathan Sri, Councillor for The Gabba Facebook page on April 27. Read the full piece here.]

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