‘Want to go to the footy? Download the app.’ tweeted Health Minister Greg Hunt on 2 May, speaking to Australians as if they were unruly children who need to eat their veggies before they get dessert. The dessert being a ‘new normal’ where governments hold our freedoms to ransom until we meet the demands of unimpeachable health experts.
Australians have been told that life will not return to normal until a sufficient number of people comply with the government request to download and activate on their mobile phones a programme, known as COVIDSafe, launched earlier this month. When a person tests positive to the virus, the data the app collects can be used to track, trace, and isolate the outbreak. Users are required to give consent to the data collection and it is opt-in.
At a practical level Australians are being asked to believe two implausible things. The first is that this particular app is the only solution that was available to the government and public health authorities. As Dr Chris Berg and Kelsie Nabben at RMIT University pointed out, the app was just one contact-tracing option amongst several alternatives that involved incorporating advanced cryptography which might be a better protection for privacy than those provided in legislation. The federal government has given itself broad latitude to use any of the information that has been collected by it through the many exemptions and permissions accumulated over the years.
The second implausibility is that the app will operate as advertised. Government programmes are not renowned for their efficacy, especially when it concerns technology. Just think of the mandatory data retention legislation which was essential to protect national security but was quickly expanded to be used by economic regulators and local councils. It would be optimistic to believe that this app, rushed to release, will run without privacy issues or mission creep.
Nonetheless, reportedly five million Australians have already downloaded the app, leading to speculation that Australians put a low priority on privacy and are not too concerned about encroachments by the surveillance state. This ignores several important ‘push’ factors.
The app is voluntary in name only. The paternalistic ‘footy’ tweet by Mr Hunt is consistent with the message of the official pandemic response. Australians have been told that the social and economic shutdown measures cannot be relaxed until they take part in an extensive technological tracing programme.
If the app were perfectly safe and protected privacy and achieved its goals that would be a remarkable technological achievement. But it would still not justify the government using our freedoms as a bargaining chip. Any Australian who has not been convicted of an offence should not be required to do anything – no matter how seemingly trivial or inconsequential – in order to do things like visit family, have a social life or worship at a church. It is coercion, plain and simple.
Interestingly, the people responsible for regulating how this app is used are aware of the potential for coercion. A regulation passed by Mr Hunt on 25 April includes several requirements about how the data on the app is used and collected. It also restricts people from coercing others to use the app. In other words, a person is not allowed to do something like withhold the provision of goods and services or employment to another person on the basis that they have not downloaded the app. But of course the restriction on coercion doesn’t apply to politicians or the chief health officers who are offering our freedoms as part of a trade-off.
Indeed, in his National Press Club address of 5 May, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said ‘every Australian that wants to get back to work and every business owner that wants to open their doors again should download the COVIDSafe app.’
The idea that a person would need to do anything like this to have and exercise their most basic freedoms is completely antithetical to our history and our political system; a liberal democracy based on ancient English liberties as expressed through the common law and Magna Carta and so many others, which is precious but vulnerable.
It was inevitable that Australia’s political leaders would take action and that governments would address the threat to public health presented by the virus. This is their job and by and large they have done it well – we praise them for many of their efforts, such as action on borders. However, only time will tell if, as James Allan writes, it was all a massive global over-reaction.
Well-meaning and decent Australians have accepted the rules banning gatherings as well as petty restrictions, many of which were never justifiable and which went far beyond good hygiene and social distancing.
It is now well past time to start getting life back to normal. And that means the true normal, not the New Normal where the onus is on Australians to ‘earn’ their freedoms.