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QR code contact-tracing apps are a crucial part of our defence against COVID-19. But their value depends on being widely used, which in turn means people using these apps need to be confident their data won’t be misused.
WA Premier Mark McGowan’s government has enjoyed unprecedented public support for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far. But this incident risks undermining the WA public’s trust in their state’s contact-tracing regime.
While the federal government’s relatively expensive COVIDSafe tracking app — which was designed to work automatically via Bluetooth — has become little more than the butt of jokes, the scanning of QR codes at all kinds of venues has now become second nature to many Australians.
These contact-tracing apps work by logging the locations and times of people’s movements, with the help of unique QR codes at cafes, shops and other public buildings. Individuals scan the code with their phone’s camera, and the app allows this data to be collated across the state.
That data is hugely valuable for contact tracing, but also very personal. Using apps rather than paper-based forms greatly speeds up access to the data when it is needed. And when trying to locate close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case, every minute counts.
But this process necessarily involves the public placing their trust in governments to properly, safely and securely use personal data for the advertised purpose, and nothing else.
Australian governments have a poor track record of protecting personal data, having suffered a range of data breaches over the past few years. At the same time, negative publicity about the handling of personal data by digital and social media companies has highlighted the need for people to be careful about what data they share with apps in general.
The SafeWA app was downloaded by more than 260,000 people within days of its release, in large part because of widespread trust in the WA government’s strong track record in handling COVID-19. When the app was launched in November last year, McGowan wrote on his Facebook page that the data would “only be accessible by authorised Department of Health contact tracing personnel”.
In spite of this, it has now emerged that WA Police twice accessed SafeWA data as part of a “high-profile” murder investigation. The fact the WA government knew in April that this data was being accessed, but only informed the public in mid-June, further undermines trust in the way personal data is being managed.
McGowan today publicly criticised the police for not agreeing to stop using SafeWA data. Yet the remit of the police is to pursue any evidence they can legally access, which currently includes data collected by the SafeWA app.
It is the government’s responsibility to protect the public’s privacy via carefully written, iron-clad legislation with no loopholes. Crucially, this legislation needs to be in place before contract-tracing apps are rolled out, not afterwards.
It may well be that the state government held off on publicly disclosing details of the SafeWA data misuse until it had come up with a solution. It has now introduced a bill to prevent SafeWA data being used for any purpose other than contact tracing.
This is a welcome development, and the government will have no trouble passing the bill, given its thumping double majority. Repairing public trust might be a trickier prospect.
Trust is a premium commodity these days, and to have squandered it without adequate initial protections is a significant error.
The SafeWA app provided valuable information that sped up contact tracing in WA during Perth’s outbreak in February. There is every reason to believe that if future cases occur, continued widespread use of the app will make it easier to locate close contacts, speed up targeted testing, and either avoid or limit the need for future lockdowns.
That will depend on the McGowan government swiftly regaining the public’s trust in the app. The new legislation is a big step in that direction, but there’s a lot more work to do. Trust is hard to win, and easy to lose.
Links for March 16th through March 22nd:
- The Hunger Games Game [CollegeHumor Video] – A parody video from College Humor, turning The Hunger Games into a tween-girl fantasy boardgame focusing on the love-triangle, to great comic effect. On some level, though, this is also a pretty decent critique of the way a film which and certain elements of the fandom around it miss the core critique of authority and a media culture, reducing it to a vapid romance tale.
- Dragon Tattoo Has Unique DVD Design – Sony’s DVD release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has confused some people because it’s designed to look like a ripped copy and, sporting letters which look like they’re written in felt-tip pen on a DVD-R. Confusing messages you’re sending there, Sony!
- Twitter turns six [Twitter Blog] – On the sixth anniversary of Twitter’s launch, the service has reached 140 million users, with 340 million tweets made daily. That said, since most active users seem to tweet a lot more than 3 times a day, a significant proportion of users don’t actually seem to tweet much.
- Game sales surpassed video in UK, says report [BBC News] – “Sales of computer games in the UK have surpassed those of videos for the first time, new figures suggest. The Electronic Retailers Association (ERA) said sales of £1.93bn in 2011 made the gaming industry the country’s biggest entertainment sector. By contrast, sales of DVDs and other video formats totalled £1.80bn, while music pulled in £1.07bn.”
- Will The Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up (feat. Eminem) – YouTube – Clever political mashup video in search of the ‘real’ Mitt Romney featuring Romney and Obama in the style of Eninem’s Slim Shady.
- Rob Reid: The $8 billion iPod | Video on TED.com – Fantastic TED parody explanation of the logic behind copyright lawsuits and litigation: copyright maths. From TED: “Comic author Rob Reid unveils Copyright Math (TM), a remarkable new field of study based on actual numbers from entertainment industry lawyers and lobbyists. Rob Reid is a humor author and the founder of the company that created the music subscription service Rhapsody”
Links for September 7th 2011 through September 21st 2011:
- Game over for Japanese teens as grey gamblers take prime slot at arcades [News.com.au] – “The country which gave the world classic arcade games such as “Space Invaders” and “PacMan” is facing a demographic crisis, with a dwindling birth rate and ever-swelling numbers of elderly people. So Japan’s amusement arcades, once an exclusive resort of youth, are increasingly becoming the abode of the old, The (London) Times said today. According to the Hello Taito game centre in the Tokyo suburb of Kameari, as many as 90 per cent of its weekday visitors are over 60 years old. In an effort to encourage elderly customers, the company is making concerted efforts to appeal to this unfamiliar demographic. Metal stools have been replaced by benches covered with old-fashioned tatami mats. Seaweed tea, popular among retired people, is provided free, as well as blankets and reading glasses. Even the deafening noises emitted by the arcade machines have been turned down to a minimum out of consideration for geriatric sensibilities.”
- Ctrl-Z new media philosophy – New broadly-themed and inclusive academic journal looking for submissions under the broad umbrella of “New Media Philosophy”.
- Harried, underpaid staff plan to flee the sector [The Australian] – *sigh* “Two in five academics under the age of 30 plan to leave Australian higher education within the next five to 10 years because of high levels of dissatisfaction caused by lack of job security, poor pay and mountains of paperwork and red tape. And for those aged between 30 and 40, the figure is one in three. Dissatisfaction and insecurity are so rife among casual and sessional staff that a new report for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations estimates that close to half the academic workforce will retire, move to an overseas university or leave higher education altogether within the next decade.”
- Online gamers crack AIDS enzyme puzzle [The Age] – Collaborative online gamers manage to crack a crucial enzyme which is key to combating HIV. This is tangible evidence of collective intelligence of game players when usefully directed and harnessed.
- danah boyd | apophenia » Guilt Through Algorithmic Association – How algorithms can make someone look guilty or attached to something, even if it’s only other searchers making that connection: “You’re a 16-year-old Muslim kid in America. Say your name is Mohammad Abdullah. Your schoolmates are convinced that you’re a terrorist. They keep typing in Google queries likes “is Mohammad Abdullah a terrorist?” and “Mohammad Abdullah al Qaeda.” Google’s search engine learns. All of a sudden, auto-complete starts suggesting terms like “Al Qaeda” as the next term in relation to your name. You know that colleges are looking up your name and you’re afraid of the impression that they might get based on that auto-complete. You are already getting hostile comments in your hometown, a decidedly anti-Muslim environment. You know that you have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but Google gives the impression that you do. And people are drawing that conclusion. You write to Google but nothing comes of it. What do you do? This is guilt through algorithmic association.”
- Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich join Charlize Theron in new Dior J’Adore advert [Mail Online] – Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich all posthumously join Charlize Theron in a new perfume advertisement thanks to the plasticity of computer generated imagery.
Links for July 13th 2011 through July 21st 2011:
- Google Scholar Citations [Google Scholar Blog] – Google launches (in very limited release) Google Scholar Citations, their own citation statistics for scholarly articles and books. Google Scholar has appeared to be one of Google’s least loved and least developed projects, so I’m glad to see it’s getting some TLC. That said, citation metrics are funny things and tend to be used in far more ways than intended, especially in evaluating ‘academic performance’. What sets these metrics apart from others is that thanks to Google Books, many citations from books and of books are in here too (many citation metrics are articles only). Which leaves me with one big question for now: carrot (what Google can do for struggling scholars out to prove their worth) or stick (is your data in Google Books, and if not, why aren’t you hassling your publisher to get included and thus get better metrics?)?
- Pottermore and Google team up to enable Harry Potter ebooks push to Google Books libraries [Inside Google Books] – Google Potter – definitely a win for Google: “When JK Rowling’s new website Pottermore opens its doors this Fall, we’ll provide services to help fans make the most of their ebook purchasing experience. Pottermore and Google are teaming up to integrate Pottermore with a number of Google products and APIs. So when the series of Harry Potter ebooks launches on Pottermore.com in early October, these bestsellers will be available in the U.S. via the open Google eBooks platform. When you buy a Harry Potter ebook from Pottermore, you will be able to choose to keep it in your Google Books library in-the-cloud, as well as on other e-reading platforms. […] Also under this agreement, Google Checkout will be the preferred third party payment platform for all purchases made on Pottermore.com.”
- Rebekah Brooks “Friday” (Rebecca Black Parody) [YouTube] – Impressive mashup lampooing Rebekah Brooks and the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
- Australian Cinema Tickets Most Expensive: Choice [WA Today] – Throw in 3D for good measure and it’s close to $100 for a family of 4! “Australian cinema-goers pay more for their silver screen experience than anyone else in the Western world, according to consumer advocate Choice. Spokeswoman Ingrid Just said that Australians heading to the cinema paid far more than movie audiences in the US and New Zealand. Research found that, on average, Australian adults paid around $18 per ticket, while families of four can expect to fork out up to $67 for admission to the local multi-national cinema complex. “Taking into account exchange rates, an Aussie family of four spends just over $34 more than a New Zealand family and $28 more than a US family on a trip to the flicks,” Ms Just said.”
- LulzSec hack into Murdoch’s British websites [The Age] – “Hackers who broke into the News Corporation network and forced its British websites offline claim to have stolen sensitive data from the company including emails and usernames/passwords. All of News Corporation’s British websites were taken offline today following an attack on the website of tabloid The Sun, which earlier today was redirecting to a fake story about Rupert Murdoch’s death. Further pain is expected for the media mogul as the hacker group responsible for the attack claims to have also stolen emails and passwords for News International executives and journalists. It said it would release more information tomorrow. […] The infamous hacking group LulzSec have claimed responsibility for taking over The Sun’s website, linking to a site with the fake story under the headline “Media moguls body discovered”, with “Lulz” printed at the bottom of the page.”
- A life in writing: Slavoj Žižek [Culture | The Guardian] – Short and sweet interview with Slavoj Žižek. Notable quote regarding Wikileaks: “”We learned nothing new really from WikiLeaks,” he tells me later. “Julian is like the boy who tells us the emperor is naked – until the boy says it everybody could pretend the emperor wasn’t. Don’t confuse this with the usual bourgeois heroism which says there is rottenness but the system is basically sound. […] Julian strips away that pretence. All power is hypocritical like this. What power finds intolerable is when the hypocrisy is revealed.””
- BBC rents out Doctor Who via Facebook [TV Tonight] – “BBC Worldwide will offer a series of digitally remastered Doctor Who stories to ‘rent’ via Facebook in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By using Facebook credits, users visiting the official Doctor Who page will be able to stream a selection of nine stories (each containing several episodes) from the history of the Time Lord, including digitally remastered classics such as ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘End of the World’. […] John Smith, Chief Executive at BBC Worldwide said “As we have grown internationally, we’ve seen through our Facebook channel that fans who are loving the new series are asking for a guide into our rich Doctor Who back catalogue. Our approach to Facebook and other leading edge platforms is to be right there alongside them in fostering innovation. We see this service as a perfect way to give our fans what they want, as well as a great way for them to get their fix between now and the autumn when Series Six continues.”