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Why a ‘dyed-in-the-wool libertarian’ decided to download COVIDSafe app


Joanne and Michelle were, like most Australians, yet to download the app.

“Half of me is thinking that my data is going somewhere, though I do know Google is doing that anyway,” Joanne, 28, said.

“I’m not totally opposed. I haven’t really had a good think about it yet.”

The Hanveys are common family story across the country. Statistics show more than half of Australians support the app. While some are open in their advocacy, a niggling sense of distrust has more sitting on the fence.

Some, like former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, are openly hostile.

Mario Bojilov, who teaches data and cyber security for the MBS academy, said the COVIDSafe app was far less than intrusive than foreign mega companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, which are used by millions of Australians every day without a second thought.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly helped to launch the COVIDSafe app.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly helped to launch the COVIDSafe app.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Each one of us is a data point. The fact we get so much stuff for free is because they can monetise us in a different way,” he said.

“Let’s say we use the [COVIDSafe app]. It will tell you who you have been in contact with, or nearby, and if these people are infected with COVID-19. Now, there are some legal safeguards around that and the source code for the app will published for researchers to investigate.

“But when you think about Google, Facebook and all the others, it’s a different story. Google knows what you think better than you do yourself. Google remembers what we were thinking 10 years ago when we did that search, and it’s stored on the Google servers.

“It’s insights are much, much deeper. It knows preferences for purchases, politics, you name it.”

Federal and state governments are also already using a trove of anonymised data sources to track population movements in the fight against coronavirus, including NBN usage, phone data and toll road figures.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet alone lists 10 data sources it uses to determine where and how people are moving and their responses to social distancing measures.

The government then compares the data against international trends to determine the effectiveness of Australia’s strategies.

A spokeswoman stressed the information was public, aggregated and anonymous.

The Andrews government did not respond to questions about what data sources it had used.

The Sunday Age revealed last month the Australian government had secured data from telecommunications provider Vodafone used to show patterns in people’s movement in the bigger cities compared with the same time last year. This information was also aggregrated and anonymous, the government said.

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The NSW Information and Privacy Commission said on Thursday the use of “de-identified data” could provide important insights into how to manage the pandemic and the need for other measures.

“However, it is essential that the risks of re-identification are addressed and mitigated,” it said.

Rajan Venkataraman from Civil Liberties Australia, which does not in principle oppose COVIDSafe so long as rigid safeguards are in place, said people should maintain a healthy scepticism about governments’ use of big data.

“We would call upon all departments and federal and state governments to be upfront and transparent about all the data sets they’re using and ensure all data collected is anonymised and aggregated,” he said.

Back in Brunswick, Margaret and Bruce, who asked their last names not be used, were yet to be convinced about the COVIDSafe app.

“I need more information about it,” Margaret said, adding the government’s early models showing tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths in Australia had diminished their confidence in talking heads behind lecterns.

“Otherwise there’s no reason not to. It takes a minute. But we haven’t done it. I think Scott Morrison telling us there’ll be restrictions until we get the app is peculiar. He’s treating us like school kids with this.”

Big data tools used by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to evaluate and plan strategies against coronavirus:

  • Google Mobility Index Data
  • City of Melbourne Pedestrian Data
  • Sydney Tollroad Index Data
  • Citymapper Mobility Index
  • Moovit Index Data
  • Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Data
  • Oxford Stringency Index Data
  • NBN usage index data, and
  • AlphaBeta Real-time tracking Data.
  • Vodafone data.

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