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Monday, 27 April 2020 08:07

On Corona Tracking Apps

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As debates rage over the origins and impacts of COVID 19 and whether draconian government policy response here and overseas have been appropriate and effective, now there is a proposed tracking app that the Government is introducing.  Bill Muehlenberg asks - What could go wrong with a Government App?

As debates rage over the origins and impacts of COVID 19 and whether draconian government policy response here and overseas have been appropriate and effective, now there is a proposed tracking app that the Government is introducing.  Bill Muehlenberg asks - What could go wrong with a Government App?

As expected, there is already a massive debate over the merits or otherwise of the new government COVID-19 tracking app that folks can download onto their phones. A major part of the controversy has to do with privacy concerns and the like. Before exploring all this further, let me offer my quick take on it:

If you want to get the app and you think it is just peachy, then fine, go ahead and get it. I will not tell you that you cannot make that choice. But by the same token, please do not tell me what I can and should do. If I and others have genuine concerns about it, and choose not to download it and use it, that is our choice.

I repeat: If folks want the corona app, they can feel free. No probs. If they think that is the right thing for them to do, I will not complain. But they better not lecture me and others about how ‘unchristian’ or ‘uncaring’ or ‘ignorant’ or ‘Luddite’ we are for daring to ask questions and for showing some due caution and concern with all this.

And we do have every reason for asking such hard questions and not blindly following whatever the State tells us to do. Sometimes the State gets it right, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it has our best interests at heart, sometimes it doesn’t.

I have written before about some of the many real concerns, especially related to privacy issues. Despite good intentions, things CAN go wrong here. Let me offer just one Australian example of this as reported last year:

Australian Federal Police have admitted accessing the metadata of Australians around 20,000 times in just 12 months. The admission came during the AFP’s submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security’s review of the mandatory data retention laws.

The review, currently underway, is examining a range of laws, including anti-encryption legislation, and is looking into the recent AFP raids on the media. Information on the number of times metadata is accessed by government agencies is supposed to be released in an annual report on the operation of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, but a report hasn’t been released for nearly two years.

Under the controversial 2015 metadata retention laws, internet service providers are required to keep data including call records and IP addresses of users for at least two years, and hand it over to law enforcement agencies without the need for them to obtain a warrant. This data includes, but is not limited to:

Telephone records
The time and length of phone calls
The internet protocol addresses (IP addresses) of computers from which messages are received or sent
Location of parties making phone calls
To and from email addresses on emails
Logs of visitors to chat rooms online
Status of chat sites – whether they are active and how many people are participating
Chat aliases or identifiers (the name a person uses in a chat room online)
Start and finish times of internet sessions
The location of an individual involved in communications
The name of the application someone uses online and when, where and for how long used

The laws were spruiked as being necessary to catch terrorists and organised criminals, but are actually being used by not just the AFP, but a range of law enforcement agencies and even local councils have been using the laws for ‘unintended’ purposes.

Another article at the time said this:

ACT Policing has admitted it unlawfully accessed citizens’ metadata a total of 3,365 times, not 116 as previously disclosed in an explosive commonwealth ombudsman’s report on Monday. The new disclosures include a total of 240 cases that resulted in information valuable to criminal investigations and one that “may have been used in a prosecution”.

In a statement on Friday, ACT Policing revealed the 116 unlawful metadata requests detailed in the report tabled in parliament on Monday are the tip of the iceberg, with a further 3,249 requests made from 11 March to 13 October 2015 under an invalid authorisation. The revelation comes as Western Australia’s top cop has said there have been no consequences for police who unlawfully accessed a journalist’s metadata, contradicting Peter Dutton’s suggestion they might be penalised.

If these were just the occasional one-offs, and something not repeated here and elsewhere, that might be one thing. But sadly this is not always the case. And yet I have already had corona alarmists accusing me of being a technophobe, a conspiracy theorist, and worse – all because I have legitimate concerns about how things might pan out here.

I have already quoted Monica Wilkie on this. Let me do so again:

When Canberra introduced metadata laws a few years ago, we were told they would only be used to find terrorists. But greedy councils were soon demanding access so they could catch litterbugs. Facial recognition tool Clearview AI was allegedly misused by members of Australian police departments. This information is only known because Clearview’s data was breached. A breach of the government’s proposed tracking app is absolutely possible — cyber-attacks have already increased during this crisis.

Once we upload our data, we have relinquished control of it, and have no say over how it is used or misused.
Using personal data to track COVID-19 cases has already led to public shaming. A South Korean coronavirus patient detailed the fear and shame she felt after her neighbours discovered her identity, and people started demanding more and more information about her be released – some patients have also been targeted by online abuse.

Even though the South Korean government makes public a certain amount of information – like work and home addresses of infected patients – this example shows how once sensitive data is obtained, you cannot control how it is used. The South Korean government probably did not anticipate a public health intervention would be used to harass the sick.

The truth is, while technology itself can simply be neutral, it can always be used for good or ill. And there are no fool-proof technologies out there. No matter how many so-called safety measures are said to be included, I am sure that there are always those who will find a way to get around them. History has shown us this often enough as well.

But the alarmists and pro-appers have plenty of rather lame justifications for pushing this app while attacking those who dare to raise questions. One of the more idiotic arguments being made by this camp is that governments, social media and corporations already have so much data on us – so what is the big deal with this?

Um, that is about as helpful as saying that since so many folks know how to break into a home, we might as well just leave our front doors open and unlocked. Good grief, what folks should be arguing for is not MORE abuse of our private information but less. They should be concerned about all the personal data that is already so readily being gleaned and stolen from us, and not making cheap excuses for more of this to take place!

But it is the Christian pro-app camp that really can bother me at times. They are far too ready to judge you and attack you and claim that you are somehow being unloving if you say a polite ‘no thanks’ to the app. As my friend Rod Lampard recently put it on the social media:

So I’m not being a Christian, loving or Christlike, if I don’t sign up to the Government’s COVID-19 app?
I’m not caring about others by defending their hard won, blood earned, civil liberties? Where have we heard this same asinine, emotional manipulative non-sequitur before?
Oh, yeah. The same-sex marriage debate, Islamic terrorism #illridewithyou, abortion, transgenderism, Apocalyptic Climate Change…any Leftist cause, really.
Thus, and with all due respect, since when did Leftism become a yardstick for being a Christian?

Yes quite so. What scares me the most is how many Christians have zero understanding of history – or the Bible for that matter. Some of them really seem to think that government can do no wrong, and technologies can never be misused and abused.

Um, governments routinely go wrong as power grabs become the norm, and technologies are regularly used for evil purposes. Indeed, one clear lesson of history is what is merely ‘voluntary’ today far too often becomes ‘mandatory’ tomorrow – all for the common good of course.

I must once again quote from another friend, Mark Rabich, who said this about the app: “How about no? The simple rule of thumb for any new government power – in this case, to track your movements – is to imagine it in the hands of your worst enemy. NOW ask yourself if you still want that power created.”

Speaking of which, consider a primary example of this: China. Even “our” ABC has written about the dangerous digital Brave New World that is arising there. And this piece was penned back in 2018! It begins:

What may sound like a dystopian vision of the future is already happening in China. And it’s making and breaking lives. The Communist Party calls it “social credit” and says it will be fully operational by 2020. Within years, an official Party outline claims, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. Social credit is like a personal scorecard for each of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.

In one pilot program already in place, each citizen has been assigned a score out of 800. In other programs it’s 900. Those, like Dandan, with top “citizen scores” get VIP treatment at hotels and airports, cheap loans and a fast track to the best universities and jobs. “It will allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

Those at the bottom can be locked out of society and banned from travel, or barred from getting credit or government jobs. The system will be enforced by the latest in high-tech surveillance systems as China pushes to become the world leader in artificial intelligence. Surveillance cameras will be equipped with facial recognition, body scanning and geo-tracking to cast a constant gaze over every citizen.

Smartphone apps will also be used to collect data and monitor online behaviour on a day-to-day basis. Then, big data from more traditional sources like government records, including educational and medical, state security assessments and financial records, will be fed into individual scores. Trial social credit systems are now in various stages of development in at least a dozen cities across China.

Several companies are working with the state to nationalise the system, co-ordinate and configure the technology, and finalise the algorithms that will determine the national citizen score. It’s probably the largest social engineering project ever attempted, a way to control and coerce more than a billion people. If successful, it will be the world’s first digital dictatorship.

So did I just say that the Australian corona app is identical to what we find in China, and that Morrison is a hard-core communist intent on enslaving every single one of us? Um, no. But this is what I AM saying: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and even well-intentioned government policies – and apps – CAN be turned to the dark side of the force. And very easily and quickly as well, if we are not all very careful.

Much more can be said about all this. But let me repeat what I said at the outset: if you want to get and use the app and think it is the next best thing to sliced cheese, then go for it. I am not begrudging you your choice here. But I do hope that you do not begrudge me my choice here.

Read 2329 times Last modified on Monday, 27 April 2020 08:24
Bill Muehlenberg

Author, Blogger and Speaker 

Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne. He is married to an Australian, Averil, and has three sons. He has a BA with honours in philosophy (Wheaton College, Chicago), a MA with highest honours in theology (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston), and is working on a PhD in theology. He is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria. He was formerly the National Vice President of the Australian Family Association. He was formerly the National Research Coordinator at Focus on the Family.

He currently continues an independent ministry in pro-faith and pro-family activism. He is head of an apologetics/ethics ministry called CultureWatch, started in January 2006. This interactive blogsite features over 3,300 articles and 52,000 comments.