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Contact tracing in Australia and lessons for biometrics

Contact tracing for the Covid-19 pandemic is facing misinformation and exaggerated privacy concerns, similar to those that sometimes impact biometric solutions. Critics often ignore that privacy by design, cyber-security and other safeguards can be implemented. Privacy concerns should drive better design, not kill innovations. Many great innovations are dangerous if incorrectly used, think motor vehicles, electricity, explosives, medicines...the list goes on. But we don't deprive human advancement, we instead manage the risks and balance them with the benefits.


When the Australian Government’s contact tracing app becomes available, within the next few weeks, leadership and individual choice will determine its success. The tremendous majority of Australians will likely choose the social and economic benefits of voluntarily downloading and using the app, backing the leadership of the National Cabinet. As a result, combined with other measures, an easing of current activity restrictions will be achieved, whilst likely minimising illness and deaths. Each of us can make a small contribution to everyone enjoying more freedom and mitigating tens of billions in economic damage. 


There are some people who would like to see the app scuttled before it even sets sail. It’s healthy that we debate the various government measures to address the pandemic, but there is a need to be careful the debate is not infected with misinformation and paranoia on social media. As a nation we need to make real world trade-offs. Let’s not be seduced by self indulgent virtue signalling rhetoric that conjures a threat to civil liberties. The reality is such a threat is so feeble it could not survive the “supremacy of the [Australian] people”, that John Locke would recognise as thriving in Australia, if he were alive today. In other words; it would be electoral suicide for the Government to misuse the app data.


The Government will undoubtedly provide thorough information before the app’s launch. In the interim, good evidence is available from the Singapore example that Australia is learning from. Have a look at: https://bluetrace.io/ The white paper will inform about privacy safeguards. The real news links will demonstrate that other democracies will deploy similar tech enhanced contact tracing. The Government is NOT going to use geolocation. They are NOT going to be tracking your location, unlike many private company apps do. Beyond the technical implementation, anyone who doesn’t recognise the ability of Australia to safely use the tech should consider our history.


Australia has a great history of finding a healthy balance of security and civil liberties. We instinctively understand that rights have accompanying responsibilities. We have a history of pragmatic national policy that has achieved a level of freedom, prosperity and security that many around the world envy. This wealthy liberal democracy did not happen by accident, nor will it be maintained or improved automatically. I respect that, decades ago, Donald Horne intended to provoke debate with the “Lucky Country” label, but I submit that historical evidence is very much to the contrary to his criticism. Leadership and individual freedom and ingenuity have virtuously reinforced progress in Australia from its earliest beginnings. This was not luck. Determination and difficult choices were always required. When the First Fleet arrived, indigenous people were thriving in a harsh environment that sent the new arrivals reeling. Does anyone really suppose that was because indigenous people had just sat around for ~50,000 years whilst the food and shelter came to them? Their nations were successful because they combined leadership with individual rights and responsibilities to others. Post the First Fleet, indigenous suffering is further evidence that the decisions of governments and individuals matter. Prosperity is not automatic in Australia. Noel Pearson’s advocacy, regarding rights and responsibilities, hopefully shines a light on the path to restoration of indigenous prosperity, like the leadership efforts of many others. Captain Arthur Phillip made an active stand against slavery that contributed greatly to the kind of nation that we are now, long before anti-slavery was common. The leadership of our former Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard, combined with the contribution of individuals surrendering firearms, balanced the freedom of gun owners with the freedom of all Australians to be less at risk from gun deaths. Contrast that with the distorted concept of freedom, held by some in the United States, that has allowed their country to continue on a path of unnecessary gun death misery for many families. 


The National Cabinet will continue to lead our nation with difficult trade-offs and the results won’t be perfect. Individual choices and contributions will also matter. Wouldn’t it be good if the difficult trade-offs could be reduced by technology and a minor contribution by individuals? Well that is exactly the opportunity presented by contact tracing by smartphone app. Australians should not begrudge those who make a choice not to participate, whether their decision is based on paranoia or personal preference based on a reasoned informed view. Equally though we should openly challenge the purveyors of fear that will undermine success because we need mass adoption (about half the population) for it to be effective. Some opponents have overt leadership roles, others wield significant influence on social media. Some are ill informed, others are infected with virtue signalling, proffering a simplistic or extreme concept of freedom, that is sometimes ignorant or indifferent to the suffering of others. At the very least they should suggest a viable alternative. Meanwhile the rest of us have an opportunity to lessen the trade-offs between lives directly lost to Covid-19 and livelihoods and lives lost due to economic damage.


Each of us can make a small contribution to everyone enjoying more freedom of activity and mitigating tens of billions in economic damage. For Australia to get back to normal quickly, ask yourself these questions: 


  1. If I was ill with Covid-19, would I co-operate with health officials, to identify, inform and help others at risk?

  2. If someone I was in contact with had Covid-19, would I want to know that I may have been exposed, so that I could act in the best interests of my family and myself?

  3. Will I either take the time to inform myself of the privacy safeguards or trust the judgement of the decent Australians elected to the National Cabinet?


Yes to all? Well as soon as the contact tracing app is available download it, enable the permissions and turn on your bluetooth. Let your mates know of the benefits too. Leadership and individual decisions will succeed for Australia yet again. #covid19 #australia #auspol #contacttracing #biometrics


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