7 reasons to say no to the Corona Tracing Phone App

Radical anarchists

Why friends don’t let friends endanger friends

We are living through this wild ride together – where things don’t make sense. Some activist groups were the first I saw to cancel events, and also the first to mobilise into mutual aid networks – directly supporting each other in community. In the main, people who would normally be out on the streets in protest at government over-reach are doing right by their community and staying home.

We saw the Greens actively pushing for a lockdown, but seemingly without any clear parameters for how to manage this when it occurred – nor a detailed plan for how to manage policing so it did not impact on marginalised communities. In this topsy turvy land we have seen the ACTU and the Liberals working collaboratively on one of the biggest government packages we have ever seen. A Morrison government offering up free childcare. Its all a little unusual, this time of during. In ‘the before’ some of this would have seemed inconceivable. But now that the shock has worn off for some of us, we need to keep our eyes fixed firmly on what happens next. So we can shape what the new normal looks like, because we won’t be going back to the before.

Many progressive organisations are seeming a little boxed in by government. They don’t want to be seen to be opposing measures that are purportedly keeping us safe. This means suggestions that would have been considered outrageous two months ago, are being received with muted concern. Whether that be extreme police over-reach, $5000 “on the spot fines” able to instantly bankrupt people, or the 1950’s style discrimination of policing personal relationships.

I’ve been genuinely surprised at some patterns I’ve witnessed over the last month or so. People I considered to have solid progressive politics, blithely accepting the police intrusion into our lives – writing it off as the cost of business in these unusual times. Fear and confusion has left some folks falling back on old habits and ways of thinking, hands poised over the crimestoppers number to rat on that neighbour they never liked. I’ve also seen acts of incredible kindness and more progressive collaboration and smiles from strangers I’ve ever seen in my life. The during is a strange time indeed.

One thing, that was astonishing was the willingness to accept government policing of relationships. Whilst the ‘bonk ban’ was short lived, and quickly overturned – much like a number of aspects of hastily written legislation, we saw people getting very emotional and accusing people of selfishness, for wanting to spend time with partners they don’t live with – the logic of how much higher risk some approved nuclear family households could be (two parents going off to workplaces, and children to school), seemingly lost on them.

I accept the need for a lock down of sorts. It would be much more effective if there was strong public health messaging, and if we trusted our institutions, and we were then able to rely on high levels of community compliance out of a sense of solidarity and safety, rather than a hyper policed, hopped up on authorotai, nation of dobbers. But I accept and support self isolation and many aspects of physical distancing as necessary.

However, I definitely do not support all of the measures, believe we must fight to protect some political space for dissent, and push back against unnecessary over-reach. So far we have been lied to, misled and confused, so it is certainly not doing much for trust in this government. We still must question, unpick, interrogate and look for the devil in the detail – and above all ~


This is why I don’t support the proposed phone app

  1. The governments track record on anything digital is absolutely shocking. This article will probably take five minutes to load due to the epic clustertruck which is the NBN. We’ve written about the sheer incompetence of My Health Record, and what became known as CensusFail and government legislation around metadata.

    The Data Retention act was introduced with a mandate, “protection of national security” ~ initially pitched to catch hardened criminals and terrorists yet is now accessed by over 100 government agencies and organisations, including Centrelink, RSPCA, WA Fisheries, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and Taxi Services Commission. This is the very definition of mission creep. It is standard with any policing, crime deterrent or national security badged initiative.
  2. Despite public rhetoric the privacy of our data is not guaranteed, as the Access and Assistance legislation enables forced access to apps and requires companies to theoretically break encryption (and maths) if compelled by government. This legislation is already being misused to gain access to government whistleblowers, and essentially over-rides any privacy safeguards in the potential contract tracing app. This is among the concerns listed by groups like Digital Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre.
  3. It’s likely not going to be effective. Singapore has a more cooperative population that hasn’t seen a long series of mistakes by government on anything and everything digital yet their uptake rate is still below 20%. There are estimates we need 40-50% for rollout to be successful in Australia. There are also critics noting challenges with blue tooth being used conistently in a way that is accurate, and doesn’t drain phone batteries rapidly.
  4. We can’t trust the government. It seems strange to have to state the obvious, but its strange days. Scott Morrison has not ruled out making the app compulsory. [EDIT: after huge pushback he actually did rule this back in a tweet on 18/4]

    “My preference is not to do that, my preference is to give Australians the go of getting it right … I don’t want to be drawn on that [making it mandatory], I want to give Australians the opportunity to get it right,” he told Triple M. “That is my objective, that is my Plan A and I really want Plan A to work.”

    It’s alarming to be seeing such statements this early, given he had previously said just a couple of days ago, “don’t worry, Christian Porter is looking into privacy implications”. As soon as it was announced, many feared that we could expect serious levels of community blackmail and guilting should we not comply; that we will be characterised as uncaring, willing to let people die – “that’s not mateship straya. Aussie aussie aussie, oi oi oi gallipoli mate”. Presumably we can look forward to the nationalistic pride ads with swelling, emotive music, that will ask us for this LIMITED ONE TIME ONLY OFFER OF SACRIFICE for the greater good. No thanks.

    Wait, its already started: “In the war, people bought war bonds to get in behind the national effort. What we’re doing in fighting this fight is we’ll be asking people to download an app which helps us trace the virus quickly and the more people who do that, the more we can get back to a more liveable set of arrangements.” – Morrison.

    The softening up campaign continued with a piece from Dr Coyne, head of Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in the ABC, seeking to belittle and marginalise concerns. “Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the Government can access mobile phone technology and public security cameras to achieve mass surveillance — but it can’t. Regardless, COVID-19 isn’t a national-security or police issue, it’s a health issue.” (this is simply not true regarding surveillance)

    Also, the project is to be overseen by Stuart Roberts, Robodebt champion, who seems to have a shaky understanding of how the app will work, has said “my bad” to making up a story about mygov being hacked, and somehow managed to pay $1000 a month for data which he charged taxpayers. He has also ratcheted up the patriotic flag waving, by asking everyone to join “Team Australia” as voluntary tributes.
  5. One of the partner organisations working on the tech infrastructure is Google. Although 95% of progressive organisations in Australia don’t take the risk of Google seriously, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We should not be willingly handing over detailed information about our organisations and members to Google so they can assist government in mapping very detailed analysis of activist movements, and the community in general.

    Google track your movements and monetise you as the ‘consumer’ (when you are really the product) – to sell very detailed data profiles to advertisers. They read your email to do this, participate in censorship, and share data with the US government, through the Prism program, which is then available to the Australian government under the five eyes agreement.

    (Why is google badhere, here, and here, and here, here and what they know about you. We have written on de-googling, and another article is here.)
    EDIT: Google is still bad (and encourage you to read some of the links above), but an earlier article incorrectly identified Google and Apple as overseeing aspects of the tech, however it appears the Australian version will be based on Singapore’s trace together. Under pressure Morrison has even stated that the app will be open source.

    As Edward Snowden says, “No matter how it is being used, what is being built is the architecture of oppression.
  6. Activists help create change, and work for environmental, social and racial justice. The world would be much worse off without them. Supporting this phone app actively endangers people working for social change. Please think about whether you are comfortable with that. Some of us have been subject to surveillance, and we presume many 1000s of people are being monitored by government already. It is a horribly invasive feeling knowing that people are likely watching or listening to you, and is very destructive.

    This is not paranoia, its simple maths. There are records of government surveillance going back decades, and we can only assume they have increased scope and capacity with new technology and funds. I’ve been in groups that have had both police and corporate spies in them. Its incredibly corrosive and devastating for group dynamics. It leads to distrust, the break down of healthy group culture and contributes to emotional burn out and mental health issues.

    In promoting and supporting this phone app you are providing cover and social license to the government in actively and openly accepting the surveillance of the population. This will have long term ramifications.

    Even in the best imaginary situation, even if the app is using best practice, with full transparency and oversight, you are still participating in something that is normalising surveillance. This makes activists unsafe. This in particular makes activists from marginalised groups that are overpoliced unsafe. This closes political and civic space. This means the next time we are in a serious situation it will be easier to introduce these measures, that the population has been “softened up” to accept surveillance as necessary. As anyone who tracks anti terrorism laws, and legislation that treads on civil liberties wuld know – these laws generally get bipartisan support and rarely get wound back.

    We need to think in longer time frames – whilst this time is frightening for many of us – we still have major climate disruption to come, and with it, the risk of rising fascism and further government over-reach. Already climate activists are facing the brunt of huge penalties and repression. This will get worse. Now is not the time to be adding further risk for activists and marginalised communities.
Image of person receiving a notification after being diagnosed with Covid19
Excerpt from Google promo material

The app, and and explanation of the google/apple tech is here, and a local analysis is outlined here though full detail is yet to be released. On a first glance it doesn’t look that bad – the data is supposedly only stored on your phone (mixed reports on this), is deleted periodically, and uses bluetooth instead of location services to connect to other devices.

But I’m afraid I do not trust the government on anything, much less anything to do with privacy, surveillance and my health. There are many other things the government could be doing to make us safer, including more appropriate policing, mass testing, clearer communications, and supporting vulnerable communities better. So I will be saying NO to using this app and suggesting others do the same.

I will be saying YES to responsible physical distancing, advocating for mass testing, supporting my local community, helping out my neighbours, looking out for rough sleepers, and participating in mutual aid projects. I care about people, and I hope we continue on the trajectory in this country of reigning in this virus without giving away our privacy to a government who can’t be trusted. Civil liberties save lives too.

Nicola Paris, for CounterAct

NOTE: this was written 17/4/20 with the best information available at the time – things are moving quickly, and there is much to be confirmed

PS. For all those people who think they are making a new point about the surveillance capitalism of facebook and google, and how much data that we already “give away” its boring and a false equivalence. These predatory corporate practices have been exposed over time, and most people did not actively consent to them in any informed way, plus you can limit your exposure.

Whilst the collaboration between Google and government/s should be taken more seriously by progressives, in the short term, privacy breaches are currently leading to targeted advertising, not to criminal penalties and patterns of harassment. People in Spain have already been fined based on similar tracking and location services. This is just the tiniest example of what over-reach and mission creep could result in. People in Oz have wisely been very sceptical of privacy breaches going back to the Australia card in the 1980’s. It is a concern for people to so actively support our own surveillance for the first time, despite the costs mentioned above, for a program likely to be ineffective for a range of reasons.

PPS – Radical anarchists aren’t really urging people to obey the state, but that meme is more funny than the follow up adaption from earnest anarchists.

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