I’m more worried about Mark Zuckerberg than this government and its tracing app

The government has released its coronavirus tracking app, and people are worried about privacy. The concern is that “COVIDSafe” marks a descent into an Orwellian fever-dream that features actual fever.

I know this, because many people have said so on social media. And I know that after they hit send on those Facebook posts, the site automatically ticked the “worried about privacy” box on their profiles, so they can be offered gold bullion and VPNs.

A new app released by the government aims to help trace the spread of coronavirus, but how well does it work and what data does it store?

Our privacy is constantly being eroded, whether by CCTV, scammers or our beloved smartphones – search for “Google Timeline” or “iPhone significant locations” if you’d like to experience acute paranoia.

But the COVIDSafe app might just be the first privacy incursion that benefits us, instead of advertisers or the state. We’re a little short on rights just now – freedom of movement and association, for starters. I have to pretend to exercise just to leave the house. We can’t even enter Queensland – so there is some upside. But we need to be able to relax these restrictions while controlling new infections.

Of course, we shouldn’t have unqualified faith in a government that gave us robodebt and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton – although I still trust it more than Mark Zuckerberg.

Members of groups that the government frequently targets, like minorities and journalists, understandably won’t be convinced. Fortunately, they don’t have to be. We only need 40 per cent uptake of the app – call it nerd immunity.

Besides, is COVIDSafe really the app to usher in a scary digital panopticon? Every day, the app begs me to open it, because apparently it needs this for the Bluetooth connection to work properly on my iPhone. If it has to be full screen to reliably function, as some have suggested, my main concern isn’t privacy, but that COVIDSafe is a lemon.

If the government’s app strategy doesn’t work, the alternative is a more laborious, imperfect form of contact tracing – where the government also gets to find out our movements. Living in a society always means giving up freedoms for the collective good – and this seems a reasonable trade-off.

In future, infection control apps could become invaluable in flu season, or to control STIs. I’d also love an app that warned me of approaching anti-vaxxers – not because I’m worried about contracting their measles, but because I really don’t want to hear their views on vaccines.

That said, if the government introduces a more intrusive app, I will gladly take to the streets. But only with an app to tell me whether the people next to me in the barricades have COVID-19.

Dominic Knight is co-host of The Chaser Report podcast.


Also published on Medium.