phone data harvesting

Here’s where the trust deficit bites. 

We’d all love to kill the pandemic, as demonstrated by the relative seamlessness of the Australian people’s communal agreement to stay away from each other.  

We’ve cheerfully enough given up our freedom of movement and association, not to mention such sacred pursuits as smashed avo and the footy. 

So, in that context, it wouldn’t feel like a huge ask to temporarily plug our mobiles into a national database so the medical authorities can encircle and contain each coronavirus flare-up in real time, whack-a-mole style.


The conditions of willing acceptance are further enhanced by the fact that much of the population has become comfortable with a fully online life, using technology for the first time ever as a tool to make things actually better. 

We’re primed for a life-saving app.

If we had a reason to trust our governments, then the equation of benefit and risk would still be tricky, but there would be powerful arguments for suspending a big slab of our personal privacy so that the power of technology could be wielded for long enough to take down the viral menace. 

The simple, compelling fact is that it would work, and in doing so save countless lives and potentially make the difference between rapid recovery and prolonged recession.

The technology is not difficult to understand. The app is called TraceTogether, developed by the Singapore government and rolled out there. When you download the app, your mobile number is harvested by a central server. It gives your phone a temporary user ID, which is periodically changed.

Then, each time you pass near another person who has the app, your phones exchange IDs with each other via Bluetooth. That virtual map of interactions is hoovered up by the server and kept. If you get diagnosed with COVID-19, it will flag everyone you came close to and could potentially have infected, and the authorities can then rapidly implement tracing and quarantine measures to contain the risk.

The rollout of this technology would have two consequences: first, it would help defeat COVID-19 in Australia. Second, it would create a monstrously large (and extremely valuable) data mine containing the physical movements of its users, far more comprehensive and accurate than could be pieced together from the data that our telcos already compulsorily store and make available to the government under the data retention law.

If we could trust our government. It’s a pretty basic requirement, when it asks you to hand over your house keys so it can pop in to check for termites, and promises not to make a duplicate set before giving them back.

I don’t need to point to the usual panoply of reasons for suspicion here. The endless march of Australian law-making towards repression, the drip-drip loss of privacy and rights with each passing national security scare, the politicisation of our policing bodies, the insistent political and media narrative that, above all, we can’t be trusted to do the right thing without coercion and the threat of punishment. 

All these things exist and provide sound reasons to fear that nothing we give up will ever be given back.

But there’s a more proximate cause for alarm. We were told, categorically, that the data retention law would be used only to target terrorism and cross-border organised crime. We were promised that access to it would be controlled with extreme care, that it would not be used for surveillance or as a lazy policing tool, and that it would not be used to identify journalists’ confidential sources.

Not one of those promises has been kept. The data retention regime has delivered, in practice, exactly what many of us warned it would: an irresistible treasure trove that the governments and their agencies would inevitably use and misuse to serve an ever-expanding universe of expedient desires. We knew it would happen, and it has.

The fact that almost nobody in Australia gives a crap about this outrageous assault on our privacy is not an answer. Human rights are far more often blithely surrendered than they are taken by force. And, when they are, they’re far harder to get back.

I do get the theoretical difference. COVID-19 is a persuasive argument that requires no additional support. It’s a killer and, if we can kill it, we should.  Then we delete the app, the government destroys the data, and we’re done. Hard to resist the logic.

However, consider this routine scenario. A crime is reported. The police issue a call for CCTV and dashcam footage. They express understandable frustration with whichever blackspots remain, and redouble their demands for more powers to forcibly decrypt phones, get their hands on browsing data, be able to tap our calls quickly without a warrant.

Efficient, expedient, and it will solve crimes.

Let’s say we now create a map showing where we’ve all been and who we walked past when we were there. The value of that, for crime prevention and infinite other potential purposes of social utility, is beyond calculation. Taking down a virus is just one.

Will we, when COVID-19 is gone, burn the mine? Or will there be a new reason to save the trouble of reinvention, and keep it just in case? Again, just logic.

The enemy isn’t the government. It will follow our lead. And we’re just a little too cavalier for our own future good.