KEEPING US SAFE?
Societies have been enormously altered by the efforts to ‘control the coronavirus’, with long-lasting repercussions for the economy and for individuals. While nations await a vaccine for coronavirus, national governments are considering new ways to bring some sense of ‘normality’ back to life.
In the toolkit of strategies to ‘stop the spread’ and ‘flatten the curve’, Australia is now reaching towards smartphone apps. COVIDSafe is a new tracing app designed to locate and contact registered residents who have been in contact with ‘confirmed cases’ of COVID-19.
Phones with the app, when together, exchange information and create a log of who a phone’s owner has been near. These contacts are alerted if they have been close to an ‘infected person’.
According to Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert, the app — while voluntary — is a crucial step towards rolling back Australia’s restrictions, and will help people “get back to the footy quicker“. Since it was launched, it has already been downloaded by over 3.5 million Australians.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said “millions more” will be needed. He said uptake of the app would inform discussions in national cabinet about easing restrictions.
The application was developed by governments by working with technology companies and researchers, and considering that citizens are being asked to give up their personal data, there has been little national public consultation. It obtains the following details:
- Your name.
- Your age.
- Your postcode.
- The reference numbers of anyone you’ve encountered in the last 21 days and the details of these incidents. This covers date, time, proximity and duration of contact.
- App-related data like troubleshooting, performance and error logs.
So far, the Australian government hasn’t provided a good answer as to why it believes an app will be effective at all and civil liberty experts are raising concerns with the creeping surveillance model.
In decentralised systems, only those who have been close contacts of those who have tested positive know, whereas in the centralised approach, the government can get an idea of who all those people are, even if the information is ‘restricted’ to health officials engaged in contact tracing.
The Australian model has attracted criticism because of the amount of data held by the federal government, even though the they have has stressed only state health officials will have access to the personal details required.
Many experts have expressed concerns about coronavirus tracing apps, primarily stemming from the fact that central authorities will receive a huge amount of information it’s not necessarily well-equipped to protect.
Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, said that he was optimistic that Australians would “embrace” the app in “a Team Australia moment”, but so far a number of Australians have become sceptical, including several federal MPs who have refused to install the app.
They are not alone. More than 300 scientists and researchers across the globe released a joint statement urging governments considering such apps to rely only on systems that are subject to public scrutiny and that are privacy-preserving by design. The COVIDSafe app is not one of these.
Department of Media and Communications academic, Associate Professor Timothy Dwyer, says that while there is some complacency around online privacy, many Australians are worried about the misuse of their personal data and potential security breaches of the COVIDSafe app:
“There is a constant stream of data breaches and scandals. So there shouldn’t be any surprise that people are wary of government apps like this one that promise to take good care of our personal information and to observe our privacy rights.”
Public health informatics expert and head of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health from the School of Medical Sciences, Associate Professor Adam Dunn, says that while the app does not collect personal data, there is a chance the anonymised data could be re-identified in a security breach.
“Considering the balance between utility and risks, I do not believe the app offers enough of an advantage over old-fashioned contact tracing to accept the long-term risks of its use,” said Associate Professor Dunn. He continued:
“While the app does not collect location data or personal information, that does not mean locations and the identities of people cannot be easily inferred. There are well-established methods for uniquely re-identifying people from anonymised data, just by knowing a few pieces of contextual information or being able to link two anonymised datasets.
The Australian government’s app is be based on the app called TraceTogether, which is currently in use in Singapore. A group of Australian researchers assessed some of the problems with the app.
The researchers found that while TraceTogether does a good job at keeping your data private from other users of the app, and from anyone trying to hack into your phone, it doesn’t provide very good privacy from the central authority where your data is being sent. In this case, the government.
The basis of this program is unclear, as is the nature of the app, when identification may be possible and how it might interfere with the operation of the device. That’s particularly concerning, given the government’s past failures on issues involving technology and privacy.
Let’s not forget issues such as the 2016 Census system failure, dubbed ‘the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians’, and the My Health Record debacle — which saw Australians added to the system without their knowledge and vast privacy and cybersecurity risks.
We must ask the question: Why would the Australian government release a tracing application with no clear guidance on intention and safeguards for security? What could be the underlying reason?
Can Australians guarantee that authorities won’t keep using this data for different purposes?
The situation we are all experiencing is a problem known as “mission creep” — the idea that a technology originally developed for a specific purpose, like ‘halting a pandemic’, might end up being used for all kinds of other things it was never intended for.
SOCIAL CREDIT IS COMING
The government has assured citizens the COVIDSafe app does not require you to enable location tracking, and it doesn’t actually use or store that data. This selling point is being used as a guise to mask the true intention of the app — to build social profiles on millions of Australians.
The app is not about location. There are already several different technologies in a smartphone that can be used in order to track movements, such as GPS and WiFi. Telecommunications operators are already handing over customer data to authorities during the ‘crisis’ and technology giants are developing mechanisms to be embedded in devices.
These existing mechanisms already triangulate an individual’s location for authorities to see. Don’t let the rhetoric fool you: This push is really about determining the behaviours of citizens.
Although it may seem innocuous, the exact phone model of a person’s contacts could be extremely revealing information. Authorities wishing to understand whether another person has visited some particular mutual acquaintance could read the (plaintext) logs of COVIDSafe and detect whether the phone models matched their hypothesis. This is even stronger when multiple people are in range.
As we have previously explored, China’s dystopian ‘Social Credit System’ will soon reach Australia, given the rapid uptake in biometric and surveillance technologies introduced across society.
The next step to ensure such technologies can be morphed into social credit mechanisms in an Australian-copy of China’s model is to determine what behaviours are considered ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’, and then use this information for control. What better place than a pandemic?
In China, not only is it mandatory to have the application (which is tied to your identification), but the system governs where you can go, using QR code scanners and colours to determine whether the person identified is clear (green), amber (needs to isolate) or red (a confirmed case or close contact of a confirmed case).
In Australia, although there are no mandatory requirements to install the app as of yet, authorities have warned that supermarkets and workplaces may consider the installation of the app as a new layer for COVID-19 prevention on their premises:
This means that in the future we could see Australian citizens denied entry to these locations on the basis that they do not have the app installed on their phones. Simply put: You must be a good citizen and download it!
According to the website, the COVIDSafe app can also not be used to enforce quarantine or isolation restrictions or any other laws. Right, just how ‘stay at home’ orders were once ‘voluntary’?
The key problem is the increasing normalisation of surveillance. In the last two decades, surveillance laws have become increasingly pervasive, while governments have been very reluctant to roll back legislation and technologies once they have been implemented.
By giving away your information to government, the door is left wide open for this type of data set to be incorporated into future programs to be released. Not only that, but comprehensive details of who you interact with will be stored for authorities to understand.
According to Professor Dali Kaafar, Executive Director of the Macquarie University Cyber Security Hub, this information is not anonymous and the central authority has access to the phone numbers and identities of every person on that graph:
“The authority in charge of this app knows the social graph of perhaps thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals. The only information we don’t necessarily have is the location. We might not know where they met, but we know that they did meet.
Remember, the government already has the location of every citizen under tight surveillance. This means pandemic applications could be the final piece of the growing Orwellian puzzle.
Picture this scenario: In the future, the application is mandatory. To go to work or shop for essential items, you must have the app downloaded and prove that you are indeed negative. By refusing to give your data to authorities, you are an outcast. By downloading, you are now at their mercy.
Over time, the central authority will be able to build up a detailed social graph for thousands of individuals: a picture of everyone they spend time with and how long they spend with them.
As the application reveals the extent of personal network interactions, a larger picture becomes clear and specific actions can be taken against citizens demonstrating ‘unsociable’ behaviours.
This can include continued social interactions or extended travels despite a ‘confirmed reading’, according to the application. Your entire network will then be subjected to ‘quality checks’ and potential restrictions as well.
What is to stop a future scenario where critical thinkers soon start testing ‘positive’ to COVID-19? We are already seeing China’s social credit model used for this purpose to target minorities.
Could the ‘minorities’ in Western countries soon become COVID-19 ‘thoughtcriminals’? Either those who refuse or ‘test positive’?
A fundamental shift in our society at breakneck speed has served as the perfect tool to increase spying capabilities, including now with COVIDSafe, and immunity passports will be soon to follow.
Think of the term — SOCIAL distancing. This all all about social control. Coupled with the looming possibility of COVID-19 vaccine certificates in the future, the picture is becoming clear.
Surveillance cameras, increasingly augmented with facial recognition software, cover many urban areas and are expanding into rural regions. All that is needed now is for citizen profiles to be built and new ‘social normalities’ that target individuals under the guise of ‘security’ established to enforce it.
The coronavirus saga and COVIDSafe app provide the perfect cover for this plan. The tracing app is a gateway to social credit and Australians remain unaware of the path that could soon follow.
Remain vigilante, connect with each other and continue to resist the soft-surveillance creep.
Joint Statement on Contact Tracing | Scientists and Researchers
‘Anti Corona Tracers are as Evil as Anti Vaxxers’ | John le Bon
Tracing apps are set to be a PERMANENT FEATURE of smartphones | 7 News (Snippet)
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