Superficially, the ‘COVIDSafe’ app sounds like a pretty reasonable idea: Have everyone install an app on their smartphone that uses Bluetooth signals to work out who has come into contact with whom, so that coronavirus cases can be tracked, traced and isolated in the event of an outbreak. All with users’ “express permission”, on a strictly opt-in basis.
As I said, it sounds reasonable enough. But almost every incursion into our civil liberties seems reasonable. At first.
Thankfully, Scott Morrison was quick to promise that the app would not be made mandatory. This is sensible, and Morrison must know that he will never be forgiven if he breaks that promise.
Still, even though it is technically voluntary, the app is being offered to Australians as a kind of national trade-off: Install the app and restrictions will be eased sooner. The government is effectively saying that the privilege (not the right) of freedom of movement will be restored only if millions of Australians agree to have said movement monitored. The state has put the entire population under house arrest and is now proposing to release us if we submit to the kind of tracking usually reserved for paroled criminals.
This latest thought bubble cannot be seen in isolation. In the short few weeks since Australia flipped the switch to emergency mode, we have seen excesses of the surveillance state that could have been plucked straight out of some cheap dystopian novel. Unmanned police drones fly overhead, barking at minor infractions. Cop cars mow through parks. The army conducts door-to-door checks to monitor self-isolation. Hundreds of informants have effectively been recruited with the establishment of designated dob-in hotlines.
And to top it off, lockdown measures are being enforced with a heavy-handedness that borders on the absurd. Anecdotes abound about fines being issued for technical lockdown breaches that in no way endanger public safety, as Australians rightly wonder why, for example, you can jog through a cemetery but will have the book thrown at you if you go there to pay your respects to deceased relatives. Do we really expect a light touch when it comes to this app?
Remember also that much as the government claims otherwise, there is no guarantee that this or any other measure is temporary. History tells us that governments that give themselves extraordinary powers in states of emergency tend not to relinquish them.
If anything, the use of tracking apps will probably widen in scope, as bean-counters and busybodies dream up new applications for this extremely invasive technology. We’ve been here before. It took less than three years for metadata laws passed in the name of counterterrorism, for example, to be invoked by local councils to police minor infringements like littering.
None of this takes away from the fact that the coronavirus is a serious public health issue, one that requires a substantial response by the state.
But at a certain point, we need to break the habit of giving the state a blank cheque when it comes to our civil liberties. Recent examples show that the cost is too great.
We were too willing to dispense with fundamental notions of natural justice and the presumption of innocence because the national security community told us that it was the only way to keep us safe.
We stood by as Barry O’Farrell decimated a huge swathe of Sydney’s night-time economy and cultural fabric because the public health lobby insisted that it would be much safer if the bars shut early and we all ‘just went home’. (Sound familiar?)
We cannot revert to the old if-you’ve-got-nothing-to-hide-you’ve-got-nothing-to-fear complacency here, not when it comes to a project as monstrous as tracking the movements of millions of individual citizens. We must not let another ‘reasonable idea’ become a horrible reality.
Gideon Rozner is Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs