It’s very hard to know how to feel about the Commonwealth Government’s forthcoming track-and-trace app. Most of that can be attributed to the Government’s own confused, uncertain and contradictory messaging. The app will not be mandatory. Or, well, maybe it will. Or, well, no it won’t. The Government won’t store your data. The Government will delete your data—later. The Government never sees your data at all, only your state Public Health officials can.
None of this inspires the kind of confidence required to get the country—and, more significantly, the country’s tech community—behind the app. We are told that unless it reaches 40% penetration, it won’t gather enough data to be useful, so we all need to run the app. But here, again, there are conflicting numbers from conflicting experts about the percentage needed for meaningful tracking and tracing of infection in the population. Some say 40%, others say 70% or more.
Singapore, which created the technology Australia is adapting for their own app, hasn’t seen takeup at anywhere near that rate—and that in a paternalist-verging-on-authoritarian state.
Anyway, why should we give the Government anything at all? Isn’t it now our expectation that the Government will will either fumble (RoboDebt, the Census, Centrelink) or misuse (metadata, AFP raids ABC) any information they’re given? Won’t we simply be handing the Government the ammunition it needs to control us? Once George Orwell invoked Big Brother in the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he could not be unseen. We know from reports in China—and particularly in Xinjiang—that a digital totalitarianism can be implemented with breathtaking speed and efficiency.
So we resist. We deny, we ignore, we steer away from any of the decisions that might cede so much as a millimeter of our internal, private, and unexamined territory. We want our private lives to be kept private, both for sanity’s sake, and because, when pressed, we trust neither the capacities nor the intentions of those asking to have a look in.
Yet, confined to our homes, hoping for a speedy release and a resumption of something like normalcy—even as we secretly admit to ourselves that nothing will ever be quite the same again—we feel willing to entertain any reasonable approach that might lessen the duration of our self-incarceration. The app, we are told, holds this promise, that with it come the keys to our freedom, and that for this reason above all others, it is a good thing, and we should all download it and use it.
An alluring promise, but is it enough to outweigh our fears, our concerns—and our privacy? And do we even know if it will work? So much has been promised for this app, that it will be panacea and saviour and rescue us from the ravages of pandemic. But none of that has yet proven to be the case anywhere any similar app has been deployed. It is a tool, but only one tool among many, and no one can say whether this tool is a ‘must have’ or a ‘nice to have’, yet another bit of ambiguity that makes us all wonder what is really at stake here, and why we are pushing so hard, so quickly, in this new direction.
We all want to do the right thing—for ourselves, our families, our communities and for the nation. But is any of this the right thing? We have seen so much change, so quickly, and have processed so little of it, that you need to question the wisdom of asking the nation to face another major decision. Haven’t we all been through enough? And if we defer this decision—kicking the can down the road until we have a bit of space and clarity—will we be risking another exponential breakout of disease? Can the decision we’re being asked to make today be potentially so momentous that circumstances force us into making it, right at the moment we feel least equipped to do so?
We can already see people reverting to type—those who trust the Government saying, yes, of course we’ll do it; those who don’t saying no, never, go to hell—and leave me alone. We want to be able to operate from older, pre-pandemic responses, but it may be that this new world denies us those familiar options.
What would it take to get me to install this app? I’d need to see the source code. That’s not a request I make lightly. I intend to inspect it, and to request other experts whom I trust to inspect it. Their verdicts will undoubtedly vary—and that’s to be expected. But we can’t do this—not yet. The Government has promised we will see the code. Or, well, maybe most of the code. Or, well—wait. Wait for the code.
And herein lies the whole of the problem. The Government has never really required the trust of individual Australians in this way. They’ve never learned how, and now that they need it, they’re fumbling their way through a series of own goals. None of it fills me with confidence. I understand what is being asked of me, and I understand why, but I don’t think that those asking understand how to ask, nor how to respond when I come back to them with my own, deeply earnest requests for transparency, probity, and openness.
To avoid Big Brother, we must take its measure. If we can do that—that is to say, if we are permitted to do that—much becomes possible. Where we are now feels a long way from where we need to be—as individuals, as a nation, and as a Government. We need to decide what we want, what we will tolerate, who we will trust—and what we will ask for in return, as surety. We have a right to be suspicious, even as we work to build trust.