Think Carefully About Any COVID-19 Tracing App
Jacinda Ardern has said that she’s skeptical about the efficiency of apps but it doesn’t mean that the government will not be introducing either contact or tracing apps or both. She has said they are still working on them.
At multiple press conferences, when asked if the government still planned to release an officially sanctioned Bluetooth app, she has said: "Yes, we've always kept our options open around the range of different tools and we're still working in earnest on each of them."
But there has been minimal discussion about the pros and cons of COVID-19 apps. Rather, our fear of the virus and its effect on our world has meant that most people are unquestioningly accepting the necessity of using apps to keep the spread of the virus under control.
However, we need to break away from the fear factor and consider the long-term societal results of any COVID-19 apps. We need to consider possible consequences weighed up against any benefits. We need to not only question the short-term need for contact tracing but think of their long-term use and effect. We need to look at what we are being asked to give up.
Decisions made today about any tracing or tracking apps will have huge implications for our futures.
Yet open discussion and debate will be hard as the fear is now and it is real. People want action. ‘Moving out of level 3,’ said Dr Ashley Bloomfield on 3rd May, ‘is being threatened by rulebreakers’. When we finally hear the official announcement of any apps, he and the government will be saying the move is hindered by people debating the requirements of any COVID-19 apps. Then after that the blame will be on those not signing up for the app.
Our fear will be manipulated to make the debate personal: ‘if you break lockdown, you make people sick’; ‘if you don't have the app, you make people sick’; ‘if you don't use your QR code, you make people sick’. ‘By keeping us in lockdown, you are destroying the economy’.
The pressure will be on to make us all part of the team to fight COVID-19. The social pressure to confirm will be huge. Those questioning the app will be unpatriotic and not on the same side as most ‘kiwis’. It will be an 'either you're with us, or against us' mentality.
All along the rhetoric around COVID-19 has been ‘war language’ and this is deliberate. Just a few weeks of lockdown have trained us to see each other as threats and to be suspicious of anyone outside of our bubble. And now we are being asked to voluntarily subject ourselves to a level of surveillance that, just a few months ago, would have been unthinkable.
We are being asked to sign up to what will probably be a centralised tracing app, and for those without SmartPhones, a QR tracking code app.
We are being asked to be comfortable with a tool that could allow governments and corporations to know when and where we are. The companies and institutions that are building these tools are the same companies that abused trust in the past. The anti-terrorist surveillance world they wanted to build will now be sold to us as a pro-health world. Why are we suddenly thinking we can trust them?
But many people will trust the surveillance companies. We are already trained to use apps; we download and agree to so many different privacy and data sharing protocols and the consent we give to share our data is never really informed. Many people already have apps to track their families, even their own bodies and fitness levels, so it will not be a big step for many to consent to using a COVID app.
Many people will believe that the data contact tracing and tracking apps will be deanonymised but to be meaningful the data cannot be anonymous.
There is an argument also that the apps will be only around until we get a vaccine, but once (or if) there is a vaccine, what will the guarantee be that the apps expire at the end of their time frame? When we look at the history of the use of sunset clauses, the sunset never comes. Laws that were passed decades ago with limited duration still exist and have often expanded and become accepted as the norm.
We have no idea of how any COVID-19 apps can be used in the future.
In the next few months they will probably be used to create new divisions in society. One of the proposals here in NZ is a QR code to register entering public places and taking public transport. That means places that only those with a QR code or app can go. The first iteration may be based on consent but to access public spaces it appears we may need one.
If we have an app, we need to ask will our health status become part of a dossier accessible by government? And what about all those companies that the government contracts with? Health data is already highly prized.
We need to ask which companies and people will be behind any app? Already we know that the government has been in discussion with TradeMe founder Sam Morgan and former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe. And the government has been approached by Palantir, the company founded by Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel. We need to consider who will profit financially from our data now.
Data is precious, data sovereignty is important.
We should be thinking long and hard about the benefits and consequences of any tracking and tracing app.
The fear of COVID-19 is viral. That play on our fear means that we may be rushing to introduce surveillance apps that we will later regret.