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Security theatre or digital snake oil? Why the COVIDSafe app is no protective spell

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Download the government’s COVIDsafe app if you want, but promise you’ll think twice before licking that bus stop.

There are many things that could be done to make the COVIDSafe app more useful for Australians concerned about protecting the health of those they love.

It could, for example, be a picture of an adorable cat. Or it could be an amusingly distracting game in which one lines up different types of “candy” to be “crushed”. Or it could log your interactions with other citizens using a Bluetooth “digital handshake” which would then send an alert had you been close to someone subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 and give warning that you should get tested for the disease yourself. Or maybe it could make amusingly authentic fart noises. The possibilities are endless!

That third suggestion, incidentally, is ostensibly what the Australian government’s COVIDSafe app does. That is, provided that you don’t have an iPhone because the app doesn’t reliably work on it unless it’s unlocked and running in the foreground at all times. Oh, and provided that state health departments can use the data the app collects, which at the time of writing isn’t happening.

The federal government’s rhetoric has been that Australians need to download the thing as a way to flatten the curve and reopen the economy and begin our V shaped recovery and half a dozen other talking points, with the clear implication that the number of downloads would determine the rate at which restrictions are gradually eased.

That threshold, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt, is 40 per cent of the population, for some as-yet-unspecified reason. It’s anyone’s guess, really, because when Department of Health and Digital Transformation Agency officials were asked the reasoning behind the percentage during senate estimates in early May, the reply could be accurately summarised as “yeah, nah, dunno”.

In any case: it turns out that even if the data were being successfully collected, the systems used by the NSW health department, responsible for our nation’s most populous and COVID-rich state, are incompatible with the app. That seems like one of those day-one-check-before-buying-the-code things, frankly.

Fortunately they’re not the only health body not using the app. The current number of health departments not using COVIDSafe data is all of them, not least because since everyone known to have tested positive is in quarantine which makes the app of limited utility. Ironically, the only thing that would make the app useful in its current form would be a horrifying explosion in the number of cases among the general public – that is, assuming that all those infected had Samsung phones and weren’t in NSW.

So under normal circumstances downloading the app would be security theatre designed to make you a bit more anxious and compliant, like getting your shoes scanned at an airport or being surrounded by sniffer dogs at a music festival (hey, remember when we had music festivals? Ahh, good times…).

But in 2020, given the federal government’s less than stellar handling of the bushfire crisis and the way that state governments took the lead on COVID-19 action as Canberra dithered, the app looks like a cynical attempt by the Morrison government to be seen to be doing something rather than any sort of serious public health intervention.

And smarter eyes than mine have gone over the code and concluded that if it was secretly intended as a surveillance app then it’s equally not fit for purpose, so I don’t subscribe to the popular conspiracy that Peter Dutton is using the pandemic as an excuse to fit everyone’s phone with a tracking collar. Mainly because he’s very blatantly using the pandemic to try to force through legislation that allows him to do all sorts of surveillance on Australians in the name of national security, and without any of that silly red tape like parliamentary oversight or judicial warrants or the requirement for 14-year-old “suspects” to have legal representation.

But telling people that there’s a link between downloading the app and pubs existing again suggests that it has some sort of talismanic power, and runs the risk of making people feel that they can move about the world like they used to because this bit of magic science will somehow inoculate them from danger.

There’s a known correlation between people being more reckless when they feel they’re more protected – it’s called risk compensation and it’s the bane of policymakers’ lives – and now is not the time for people to feel like it’s OK to get loose since they’ve downloaded a protection spell from the government.

At the moment, COVIDSafe is little more than a drain on your phone battery. But the real danger of an app like this isn’t that it does something sinister in a time of national crisis. It’s that it does absolutely nothing at all.

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street

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Andrew P Street is a freelance writer whose books include The Short And Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign Of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Long And Winding Way To The Top (2017).

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