“Technology, social media and apps are enabling us to maintain the social animal side of ourselves,” says futurist Anders Sorman-Nilsson.
However, the government’s proposal for a contact tracing app that requires forgoing some privacy in a bid to help protect public health is likely to test how far this focus on community goes. While details of the app are limited, the government says it will be based on Singapore’s TraceTogether app. It will use bluetooth technology to store interaction data between devices and allow health authorities to alert community members who have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Sorman-Nilsson says Australians are likely to be prepared to give up some of their privacy, given the unique circumstances of the pandemic, as their sacrifices will be not just for their own personal wellbeing but also for the benefit of the community. “People are changing behaviours and forgoing certain things to protect the weak, the elderly and the marginalised,” Sorman-Nilsson says. “In parts of Asia if you are sick you stay at home, you don’t go to work, you wear a face mask not to protect yourself but to protect others. I think we will see a big shift towards that consideration of the community.”
Sorman-Nilsson says coronavirus is prompting a move to utilitarianism where people are doing what is best for the people around them. “No man or woman is an island, we are all interconnected,” he says. “Even on a global level this and other future pandemics, which will come no doubt, cannot be solved on an individual basis. You can’t be a doomsday prepper and hide away.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday ruled out making the app compulsory, so the proposal is for signing up to be voluntary. The government says it needs up to 40 per cent of the population to sign up to make the project effective.
Roba Abbas, a lecturer in the school of management, operations and marketing at the University of Wollongong, says the experience in Singapore suggests the percentage of the population that needs to sign up is likely to be closer to 75 per cent. “Contact tracing relies on the idea of collectivism, it relies on a collective effort, and doesn’t work unless there is a community-based data driven effort to it”, she says.
She also warns despite the crisis situation we cannot relax fundamental requirements of privacy, strategies for maintaining anonymity, the encryption of data, and preventing our information from landing in the wrong hands.
The government’s poor track record on implementing technology in the past, including recent concerns over the privacy of digital health records, also raises red flags, says James Cameron, partner at venture capital firm Airtree Ventures.
He says the app as proposed will not track movement through GPS data, just bluetooth, and will use anonymised data based on encrypted user ID that is retained for a limited period of time. It will include a double opt-in to download the app and then to share data. “From what I have seen the privacy concerns for this sort of implementation are reasonably low risk but have to be addressed in a really open and transparent way,” he says. “I think it is unfortunate the government is starting from behind on this, it is a trust-building exercise and without community support the app is not useful.”
Cameron says there is precedent for Australians downloading apps such as TikTok although concerns about the company’s data privacy practices have been raised; the app is used by about 20 per cent of Australians.
He wants the government to work with credible third parties on design and consider open sourcing the app. “Working with a consortium like Google and Apple and trying to integrate what they are building to the app that is designed will go a long way,” he says. “The real issue here is not so much on the technical side it is how to win over the citizens and get wide-scale adoption.”
Nevertheless, Cameron says he will download the app “for sure, in fact I see it as my civic duty”.
However Professor Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist, technologist and head of the 3A Institute at the Australian National University, says the next set of technological solutions from contact tracing to video conferencing are entering a contested space. “They don’t enter a neutral landscape,” she says. “Many people say ‘I gave up my privacy a long time ago, I don’t care’ and then there are other people who say ‘I do care, I do a lot to protect my privacy and that of my family’.”
According to Bell we are in a societal or cultural limbo and that applies to our use of technology as well. “A whole lot of the ways we have acted before don’t apply anymore, we think differently about staying at home, working at home, we have different ideas about our bodies and how they relate to time and space,” she says. “We won’t move back to the way the world was at the start of 2020, we will be in some way always changed by this.”
Cara is the small business editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne