Government and governance, Law, National security, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia

13 May 2020

Surveillance networks being implemented to limit the spread of COVID-19 are posing challenging questions for Australians about privacy and the extent they trust their government with private data, Fan Yang writes.

In  February 2020, to recover its economy from the coronavirus outbreak, China’s State Council in collaboration with two tech giants, Tencent and Alibaba, launched the ‘health code’ mini-programme on WeChat, a social media platform, and Alipay, a financial platform.

The health code is an automatic built-in function on both platforms, leaving users incapable of choosing whether to install the function or deactivate it. This function is so far only accessible to users based in mainland China.

According to WeChat and Alipay, an assessment is made in accordance with the data drawn from government sectors including healthcare, telecommunication, transportation, migration, and customs, and this informs a person’s health rating. This is used to speculate the likelihood of whether a user poses a contagion risk, based on their travel history, medical information, and whether they have recently contacted someone who is a possible COVID-19 carrier.

This health code is presented as a more complicated version of QR code that is only scannable by authorities in order to protect user’s privacy. For users and business owners, it performs like a digital ‘proximity card’, with which users are permitted to enter a location or travel within or outside a province, based on the information in their code. Mobilities will be restricted for those who fail to install the health code.

To get their health code, users are required to let the government access their basic information on WeChat and register with their national identification number.

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On Alipay, health codes are colour-coded green, yellow, or red. With green health codes, users are granted with freedom of movement, whereas yellow and red indicate that one needs to go into mandatory quarantine, either by themselves or in a supervised quarantine facility.

Concerns have been expressed in relation to the lack of transparency, as the health code is a computer system, and whether future collaboration with the social credit system, which is designed to give the government control based on social sorting and classification, restricting certain groups of people according to their race, ethnicity, or their history of political activism.

Health code functions on Alipay and WeChat are also reported to send users incorrect information: some users were instructed to conduct isolation without knowing why, and some users have even received different instructions from the two platforms.

Drawing experience from Singapore’s TraceTogether, Australia’s coronavirus contact tracing app emerged out of controversy in April. To make sure that the application functions properly, users are required to consent to carry the phone with them when they leave home and keep the application functioning with Bluetooth activated.

The idea of the government potentially monitoring every aspect of life has drawn much suspicion. Australians started questioning: Should I give up privacy for freedom this time? How much freedom are we ready to give up in fighting an existential threat, be it a virus, terrorism, or crime more generally? And during a national crisis, is privacy still personal property?

Unlike China’s health code, downloading COVIDSafe is entirely voluntary for Australians. However, these personal choices have also been turned into a subject of moral judgement, in particular on social media. Many argue that going out without installing COVIDSafe is putting the lives of others at risk.

The public is under many layers of surveillance networks administered by technological corporates and national governments. It is certainly paradoxical to see so many express concerns about coronavirus tracking apps on Facebook, a platform with a poor history on privacy protections. However, these concerns are fair and real. Sharing personal data with the authorities further erodes the thin line between individuals and the state, and between the private and the public.

A variety of surveillance technologies are being implemented across countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, with the aim of controlling the virus. Despite their limited utility during the lockdown, they could prove to be much more appealing when restrictions are gradually lifted.

Surveillance is two-sided especially during this challenging time, and perhaps relaxing personal privacy rules can be justifiable at this stage.

The benefits of correct identification, screening, checking, appropriate classification, and other tasks associated with monitoring and surveillance must be acknowledged, despite the cost to privacy they represent.

Risks and dangers are always manifested in large-scale systems and power does corrupt – or, at least, skews the vision of – those who wield it. The pandemic has raised the serious question of how much faith Australians have in their government, especially in processing data ethically and securely, ones which will continue to be significant long after the pandemic is over.

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