COVIDSafe: Authoritarian Surveillance or Preventative Measure?


Writer: Leela H.

Visual: Sirah D.

Editor: Norbu D.

World leaders are struggling to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus while keeping their economies afloat. However, Australia has been credited as “doing relatively well” in their response (Wyeth G.) As of last week the government released the COVIDSafe app; a voluntary Coronavirus tracking app which allows the government to monitor the spread of Covid within Australia. COVIDSafe’s design was based on Singapore’s TraceTogether app. The app has been heralded by medical health professionals around the world, however many Australians have voiced their concerns about how the app may threaten their privacy. That being said, should all Australians download the app? Is it a necessary measure that all Australians should do to ensure that their fellow Australians are saved from greater exposure?

Firstly, people should download the app because it will be extremely beneficial for health services to have this data. There have already been 2 million downloads and the more data there is the more effective it will be (Taylor J.) By giving medical professionals the ability to alert the phones of people who have been exposed to someone who is Covid positive, they can alert specific citizens for the need to self-quarantine, thereby reducing the spread of this contagious virus. This is especially significant, because new studies reveal that up to 18% or more of people testing Covid positive are asymptomatic (CEBM.) This makes the app essential for doctors trying to track the spread of the virus, for any real chance of eliminating it speedily, and improving the safety of the public.

Secondly, COVIDSafe maintains the privacy of its users to a great extent. Preventing privacy infringement from the state is the primary concern citizens have, which is something to be concerned about. Some even believe that the tracking app will move Australia towards the creation of an authoritarian state wherein the government can track and monitor the location of citizens through their mobile devices, similar to the Chinese government. While the right to individual privacy is unmistakably important, the question here should be whether the extent of privacy infringement the app causes is worth the thousands of lives that will be saved and economic return. Especially, as much of the protest against the app’s privacy violations are based on false information from several small news companies who profit off of controversy, as was reported by the Feed, a politically moderate online news source.

The app cannot geolocate people, it operates through bluetooth signals in phones with the app which have come within 5 ft of another. The app only requires a person’s age range, postal code, and phone number. It sends alerts to those exposed to someone Covid positive, but does not reveal who tested positive, and it is all voluntary. The government has assured data is stored 21 days in phones before being deleted, and the app’s information will be deleted after the government declares the country Corona free. Not to mention that all of the data collected can only be seen by the public health department; according to officials, any infringements of this will result in serious jail time. Meaning citizens who use the app to its fullest extent continue to maintain a great deal of privacy while helping the rest of their country through a crucial point in history.

Overall, the case for public health trumps the case for privacy infringement due not only to the greatly beneficial impact that the app will have, but due to the limited extent of privacy infringement that can/may occur. Although due to the spread of misinformation as one Australian at ISM, Beatriz C. put it, “it is understandable why people are hesitant about downloading it.” Ultimately it is all voluntary.