Sunday, November 29, 2020
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Techno tyranny or civic duty? Government contact tracing app under fire

The Prime Minister says a controversial surveillance app is essential for our health and freedom but digital rights, legal and privacy experts warn that, with the government’s track record, the tech may become a tool of oppression.


The government has been out almost daily defending its COVID-19 contact tracing app, while refusing to provide specific details on how it will work.

The app was just released on Sunday and already over 65 Australian academics and industry experts have called on the government to be more transparent with its source code, and implement an independent review process.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, while initially threatening the app might be made mandatory, has backed down and is looking for at least 40% voluntary uptake by Australians.

The line being used by the government is that it is a “a matter of national service” to use the surveillance app and a “team Australia moment”. The government argues it is essential to ensure the elimination of the virus and our freedom of movement in the community.

“A public health app that helps health workers help you, we need this so we can have the protections in place for you, your family, so you can get back to work, so you can get your kids back to school, so you can get back into community sport – that is what this app helps you do,” said Morrison.

Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked classified documents revealing extensive global surveillance programs run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (which includes Australia), warned that governments could take advantage of the crisis to implement authoritarianism.

He described technologies such as contact tracing apps as “the architecture of oppression”.

“As we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world,” Snowden said in an interview with Vice.

“Do you truly believe that when the first wave, this second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept?”

Australia is unique among the Five Eyes countries in that we don’t have a bill of rights that provides fundamental rights to people, according to Justin Warren, board member for Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA).

“We don’t have the kinds of protections against abuse that other nations enjoy, which provides a lot more leeway for authorities,” Warren told Voice of Action.

Warren said that when you look at what is done in authoritarian regimes and compare it to Australia, “the gap is narrowing at an alarming rate”.

Mark Burdon, an Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology who specialises in information privacy law, was critical of vague statements being made by the government, along the lines of “if you want to get back to the footie then you need to download the app”.

He said we need “open, honest and transparent decision processes to encourage public trust that’s vital for uptake in the app”.

“Unfortunately, we have instead had a continuous drip feed of unclear and ill-informed ministerial explanations of what the system could look like,” Burdon told Voice of Action.

“We need our government to do better than this, especially in such trying times.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter has said regulations will prevent law enforcement from accessing information collected by the contact tracing app. Australian law enforcement and security agencies already have significant powers; in December 2018 a law was passed forcing technology companies to provide them with access to encrypted communications.

Lizzie O’Shea, chair of Digital Rights Watch Australia, told Voice of Action this is a critical moment for determining “how technology will be used to exert power over us” in the future.

“Many of the expansive reforms made in response to the threat of terrorism have lingered well after the critical moment of 9/11,” she said.

“Unless we require that governments are transparent and held to account for how they use technology to manage this corona crisis, we will pay a price for a long time to come.”

Digital Rights Watch Australia chair Lizzie O’Shea

Police have been caught conducting thousands of illegal telecommunications metadata searches under the controversial 2015 metadata retention laws.

Australian Federal Police officers trialled Clearview AI facial recognition technology from late 2019 until early this year without authorisation.

“Australia … shares intelligence with other agencies, and we know agencies ‘jurisdiction shop’ when collaborating across national boundaries, such as when Australian police ran a child porn site out of Queensland for 11 months,” said Warren.

On ABC’s Q&A program recently, ACTU secretary Sally McManus said the government was spying on union leaders. During the politically motivated royal commission into unions, even low level union members reportedly had their communications monitored.

Burdon said it was not the contact tracing app itself but the infrastructures that govern its use that had the potential to be used as a tool of oppression.

“The devices and the private sector infrastructure used for mobile phone contact tracing are part of an existing and continuous surveillant structure of informational capitalism,” said Burdon, who just released a new book, Digital Data Collection and Information Privacy Law.

“It is the use of existing sensorised devices and infrastructure where the capacity for oppression resides.”

Amazon Web Services, which does a lot of work with Australian government and intelligence agencies, won the government contract to store the data for the contact tracing app in a secretive tendering process that excluded Australian companies, ABC reported. This led to fears that it might be legally accessible by the US government, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and Morrison sought to knock those criticisms on the head on Friday by promising the data would be stored in Australia.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said laws will be enacted making it a crime for Amazon to take data from the contact tracing app overseas.

“This is exactly the same way the Australian government already uses AWS for many other agencies, including the work of our intelligence agencies, including ASD, and ensures Australian data stays in Australia,” he said.

Warren said there should be robust, independent oversight of government proposals for new surveillance tools to ensure they are proportionate to the need and time-bound so they don’t get expanded to other uses later. He said we need to see the source code of the contact tracing app and hear detail from health and technology experts about what it will do to help us.

“The government cannot bully us into trusting them,” said Warren.

“Our informed consent requires them to be clear and transparent with us. The government has to trust us before we can trust them. They appear to find that a novel concept, sadly. Never let a good crisis go to waste, I suppose.”

Electronic Frontiers Australia board member Justin Warren

The Law Council of Australia has called on the government to adopt core design principals for the app including “clear governing laws and administrative frameworks, adoption of a voluntary ‘opt-in’ model, limitations on the collection of users’ personal information, a prohibition on any secondary use or disclosure of information collected by the app, security of personal information, and limited use of de-identified information for specified public health purposes amongst others”.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said on Friday that privacy concerns about the contract tracing app needed to be addressed and parliament would scrutinise the legislation facilitating the app.

The CEO of Amazon Web Services Andy Jassy is one of many Silicon Valley elites that are part of a US government organisation called the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), which was tasked with figuring out structural changes to US society and the national security apparatus needed to ensure a technological advantage over China in national security and defense.

A document from the NSCAI (chaired by Eric Schmidt, former Alphabet/Google boss), revealed this week under freedom of information laws, suggested that the US should follow China’s lead and even go further when it comes to using mass surveillance and other AI driven technologies.

The document, produced by many of the same companies advising the US government on how to “re-open” the economy, is dated May 2019; the US government has been implementing its suggestions in response to the COVID-19 crisis. There is also overlap between the NSCAI and companies involved with implementing contact tracing for Jared Kushner’s US national coronavirus taskforce.

The US government may use both phone geolocation data and facial recognition technology in order to track people who may have coronavirus, The Wall Street Journal reported. Apple and Google are building contact tracing into their operating systems.

“The overall trend is for authorities to amass more power, with less oversight, and when any one of them succeeds, the others use it as precedent to push for the same (or more) in their jurisdiction, creating a kind of ratchet where more power is added, but almost never taken away,” said Warren from EFA.

“The thing about power is it never seems to be enough. Amassing more power becomes a goal in and of itself … We’ve seen where that leads and it isn’t a liberal democracy.”

The NSCAI document points out that while AI is “something to be feared” in the West, in China it is viewed as a “tool for solving major macroeconomic challenges in order to sustain their economic miracle”. The messaging promoting the use of contact tracing and other surveillance in the wake of COVID-19 shows there is significant work being done to change this view in countries such as Australia.

The document predicts China will soon force every citizen to have their “DNA sequenced and stored in government databases”, but notes this would be impossible to imagine in more privacy conscious countries.

The US Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, a collaboration between the Pentagon and the US intelligence community to get ahead of China on AI, co-ordinates with US allies as part of its remit.

Burdon said we understand the world and our place in it from our devices because they increasingly mediate and shape our experiences.

“This power of mediation means that the practice of citizenship can be configured in subtle ways by device design and data analysis,” he said.

“The pervasive tracking of self-quarantined individuals by app, that’s being employed in some countries, is a case in point.”

Burdon said our phones could be configured to shape how we perceive the world around us. He said the contact tracing apps segmented us into different categories of citizen (e.g. tested or not tested, vulnerable or healthy).

“Our most intimate device, the mobile phone, is being used to shape and segment our notion of citizenry and, in turn, it is also being used to shape our understanding of the information privacy protections we should expect,” he said.

“It is here where the true possibilities for oppression lie, not just in direct forms of power, but in the ability to shape understandings of what we should expect as citizens.”

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