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COVIDSafe: For many, privacy isn't a luxury to give up

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Our government wants us to relinquish privacy that most people can't afford to give up (Image by Dan Jensen)

Many ordinary Australians have a right to be wary of the COVIDSafe app and aren't in a position to forfeit their privacy, writes Noely Neate.

UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN living under a rock, you will know all about the poorly-named COVIDSafe app. Yes, I say poorly-named as it will not keep you “safe” from COVID-19 as the name suggests, but sadly, too many people seem to think it will.

I am not going to be advising anyone to download the app or not. I work in I.T. so I have middling knowledge but don’t feel qualified to address the aspects of this app, which cover the gamut from health to privacy to a very specialised area of I.T. — I tend to prefer to rely on experts in those fields.

Will the app actually work as advertised? Will it actually assist health professionals? Will this government, for once, actually keep its word and not use/abuse/misuse/breach, basically just refrain from overreach for the very first time to my knowledge? I don’t know, but I hope so.

Software should be used to improve and simplify our lives and if the Government respected citizens' privacy, made it a sacred site in law and actually kept their word every time they came up with some new I.T. initiative, I would not even be writing this piece. Unfortunately, as Michael Pascoe noted in We’re paying the price for the Government’s deceit: ‘It’s that trust thing’.

What I do want to address is “privilege”. You're possibly wondering what privilege has to do with an app, so let me explain.

We have had so many celebrities, blue ticks on Twitter, sportspeople and, of course, politicians telling us to download the app. We won’t even be able to go to the footy if we don’t download the app.

One thing nearly all these people spruiking have in common is they are more often than not male, white and live in a nice, comfy financial demographic. And good on them.

Some are pretty rabid, making out like you are a tin foil conspiracy theorist if you don’t want to download the app, which is never a good way to win hearts and minds.

Some are pushing the “don’t be selfish” message, implying you are willing to kill off grandma to ensure your privacy — another surefire winner in getting people onboard.

Either way, the virtue signalling for some is shocking.

Many who don’t wish to download the app have valid reasons: privacy, government abuse or overreach in the past or they just don’t really like apps on their phone. Though I would note, many of those same people with concerns are also happy to stay at home, self-isolating and following all the safety procedures should they need to leave home. They are not being dismissive, they do care about their community and not spreading disease — they just don’t wish to download a government app or they don’t trust this government.

For many though, government overreach is a massive problem. This is where I am noting the privilege from the many squealing the loudest, or my favourite genre of COVIDSafe pusher — the “expert”.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, better known as the Atlassian co-founder and Aussie tech entrepreneur darling, was the first out of the blocks and that seemed to incite calls of “I am an expert/I.T. specialist/privacy specialist/lawyer and I have downloaded the COVIDSafe app”.

This resulted in many of the biggest names all tweeting or, in some cases, bragging that they had all downloaded the app, too. Aren’t they wonderfully civic-minded boys and girls?

The latest is Stephen Wilson, a very good privacy expert whose work I do like, with his article titled I'm a privacy expert — and I've downloaded the COVIDSafe app. This was pretty much the last straw for me. I get what Stephen is saying — we are in a pandemic and you sometimes need to pull your head in and suck it up, even if you are uncomfortable with aspects of what is being asked of you.

The below in particular though really stuck in my craw:

The loudest objection is also the simplest: “I do not trust the Government and I will not trust their app.”

 

All these criticisms are valid. But it saddens me to see respected privacy advocates rehashing entrenched positions at a time like this. There’s very little wrong with the app itself, but people resent it because they resent the Government. Yet I don’t see how we can afford that luxury right now.

For starters, why should it be citizens who roll over on privacy concerns and just “trust” a government known for not being trustworthy and download an app that so far doesn’t actually work. States have not even worked out how they will use the data and the legislation to ensure privacy has not even gone to Parliament yet and could interfere with other health apps, dangerously, just to name a few issues.

Knowing all this, instead of trashing people concerned about their privacy, why not use your “expert” status or “celebrity” to push the Government to test the app properly before releasing it into the market place and implement water-tight privacy laws that protect citizens from government abuse/misuse/overreach?

Privacy may be a luxury to Stephen and his like-minded fellows, but for many Australians, it isn’t.

Ask any whistleblowers how they feel about privacy.

Ask the ParentsNext parent pinged by the rent-seeking job provider, at the shops instead of hospital – which they used as an excuse for not taking their child to a mandated activity – their payment cut off, having to beg and almost get an affidavit from the chemist they visited to get medication for said sick child as a reason they were in the shopping centre. How would she feel about her privacy?

Maybe you can ask the various so-called political enemies of this government who always seem to have out-of-context information about them leaked to favourite journalists in large media outlets how they feel about their privacy.

Or ask the 700,000 migrants who had their data breached by Home Affairs how they feel.

The domestic abuse victim who had her details leaked to her abusive ex-partner – by a cop, no less – is probably not feeling too comfortable about a tracking app.

I could go on, from Andie Fox to Witness K; just ask any victims of government misuse of access to personal data how they feel about privacy.

Nicola Paris, in her article titled Covid Not so Safe — the case for conscientious objection, gives many more reasons why people could be concerned about downloading this app.

So please, download the app, don’t download the app, I don’t care. Just don’t try to bully or shame those who choose not to. You don’t know what position they are in and only the privileged in our society have the luxury of not being concerned about parting with their privacy for the greater good.

Footnote: In the past three days since writing this, more privileged types have joined the ranks of insulting or trying to call out those who don't trust the Government and don't want to download the app including Bec Judd and opinion pieces written by Sarah Megginson and Angela Mollard.

Read more from Noely Neate on her blog YaThink?, or follow her on Twitter @YaThinkN.

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