Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy at the launch of the COVIDSafe app (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

There are very likely a substantial number of Australians, particularly older, less technologically literate people, who have downloaded the government’s surveillance app in the belief that it will actually protect them against COVID-19 infection — that the app itself will somehow deliver prophylactic benefit.

The government has strongly encouraged this misapprehension by constantly linking the app and safety. It’s in the very name: COVIDSafe.

Downloading the app “makes the country safe for you”, chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said. The app will deliver a “COVID safe environment” according to the prime minister. “The higher the number of people who have downloaded COVIDSafe app, then the safer you are.” The PM even compared the app to sunblock. “Slip, slop, slap the app.”

This was wilful and cynical deception by the government, encouraging people to download the app in the delusion that it would actually prevent infection, acting like a sunblock for the virus — unless, of course, the prime minister and chief medical officer don’t understand the most basic science and themselves think the app will prevent infection.

The fact that the app won’t even be doing the job it is supposed to be doing for another week, and has a fundamental problem on iPhones anyway, makes the government’s deception particularly shameful.

Still, terrifying some elderly people into downloading the app, or terrifying them more when they discover their phone can’t download it or anything else, is worth it, right, because of what the app will deliver?

Except, the app won’t deliver much. It will generate large numbers of false positives and false negatives — the person on the other side of a wall from you for 15 minutes who tests positive, the long-gone supermarket shopper whose COVID-19 you acquire.

What it will deliver, primarily, is a false sense of security for people and a sense that something is being done.

Which, by the way, is standard for technological solutionism.

That’s the belief that a social or economic problem can be solved at a stroke, or maybe a keystroke, with some great new piece of tech, without anyone having to make hard decisions or undergo sacrifices. It’s the inflation of micro-level solutions — a particular tool will help me with a problem or address a need of mine — to complex, macro-, global-level problems.

Worried about climate change? Carbon capture and storage will solve it — you can keep using coal-fired power and not worry. No actual change needed, no restructuring of carbon-intensive industry or energy networks, no price signal or tax.

Worried about terrorism or crime? Facial recognition will address it. Concerned about resource access? The Internet of Things will solve it. Congestion? Pollution? Health problems? Artificial intelligence will fix them. Algorithms. Big data. There isn’t a problem that Big Data hasn’t been claimed to offer a solution for.

The current era of tech solutions goes back to the start of the digital age, when the internet was going to bring down dictatorships, rather than enable them to better surveil their populations (and I speak as a former internet evangelist myself).

As becomes obvious quickly, the spruikers of tech solutions are the ones with the most to gain from unthinking embrace of their creations. That’s why tech solutions is so closely linked to Silicon Valley and tech entrepreneurs.

But they find willing believers among policymakers because they invariably offer shortcuts to problems that otherwise require hard work, political risk or harm to vested interests to resolve. They peddle win-win outcomes in which problems are fixed without anyone having to incur a cost.

That’s exactly what the government is offering at the moment: download the app and we can immediately revert to life before the pandemic, without further lockdown, economic cost or inconvenience.

Technological solutionism, though, comes with recurring features, all of which have been demonstrated by the Morrison government’s surveillance app.

First, simple solutions rarely work as well as spruikers claim — even when, unlike Morrison and Murphy, they don’t misrepresent the tech. The surveillance app doesn’t help protect against the virus, to state the obvious, nor does it provide a good guide to whether someone may have been infected. It merely provides more information for people tasked with tracing possible contacts of an infected person, but much of that information may be entirely spurious.

Just as getting access to communications metadata has flooded law enforcement with useless data that often complicates investigations, the app — even when it works properly — will likely provide a large volume of useless information, while missing crucial pieces of data.

Second, they cause unintended consequences and downstream effects. One consequence of the app is that people, believing the app exercises some magical prophylactic effect, will be less inclined to protect themselves through measures we know work — social distancing, regular handwashing, better public hygiene. Result: a greater chance of infection.

Third, tech discriminates because it is made by humans who discriminate, consciously and unconsciously. The racial biases built into facial recognition and AI by Silicon Valley engineers are well known — Google has even devoted extensive resources to trying to address them. The app discriminates against the technologically illiterate, or those who can’t afford a smart phone — or, as it turns out, iPhone users.

And fourth, many tech solutions, offered as positive solutions to real problems, become vehicles for serious problems themselves. Personal data-based tech contains inherent risks to privacy that mean even the most innocuous applications can, in the wrong hands, be used for very sinister ends. Our own government has misused innocuous data collections like personal information of welfare recipients. The power provided by data proves irresistible to those already in power.

The old saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is, applies more than ever in a world of self-interested tech spruikers and lazy governments.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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