The coronavirus crisis has taken a huge toll on the world’s economy, on the way we live, our humanity even. We want to go to work again, dine out, to go to the theatre, to the footy and to see our friends and elderly grandparents but the price of a speedy return to normalcy may include giving up part of our privacy by allowing the government to track us with a new tracing app; for our own good, and for the good of the public health system.

The premise is simple: people download a contact-tracing phone app which will help authorities identify those with whom someone diagnosed with COVID-19 has recently come into close contact. With a quick click people will be informed as to whether they are at risk and take relevant precautions to stop the spread of the pandemic, protecting themselves and their loved ones.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the tool is on its way. “Earlier this week, as I indicated to you, it received the in-principle support of the national cabinet and we have been taking that through its final stages in recent days,” he said on Friday.

“It will be illegal for information to go out of that (national encrypted) data store to any other person other than that for whom the whole thing is designed, and that is to support the health worker in the state to be able to undertake the contact tracing, with the data that they access being released by the individual for whom is the subject of the contact tracing.”

Critics, however, are concerned that the app which allows the government to potentially monitor our daily travels and interactions may not be as innocuous as it seems. National’s MP Barnaby Joyce said he won’t sign up, and for the app to be of any use at all, it would need to be downloaded by 40 per cent of the population according to the government – or more like 60 per cent according to Oxford Researchers.

READ MORE: Is the government’s coronavirus app a risk to privacy?

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert rules out privacy concerns, ensuring that the app would not be available to law enforcement. “We don’t care where you are or what you’re doing?” he said, but added that people would be asked to add their name, age range, postcode and phone number. Using Bluetooth, the app would record when people were within 1.5m of another user for 15 minutes.

And therein lies part of the concern. Computer scientist Kostas Avlonitis, IT specialist for the Greek Community of Melbourne, told Neos Kosmos that if the app requires a registration, then the government will be provided with details of users, taking away from their anonymity.

“The government promises that only the government will have access to your details, however time again we have seen central databases getting hacked so it’s hardly reassuring – especially coming from non tech people and from a government that has enacted encryption weakening laws,” Mr Avlonitis said

“Beyond privacy, there are technical limitations on what system resources non-first-party (that is directly from either Google or Apple) apps have access to. So it is practically impossible for the app to run the way it is supposed to (constant bluetooth surveillance), without being always at the foreground massively consuming battery resources.”

Scientists, such as Dr George Danezis, Professor of Security and Privacy Engineering at UCL, and Professor Vassilis Zikas, Senior Lecturer of Security and Privacy at the University of Edinburgh on Monday put their names on a joint document signed by 200 scientists from 25 countries. “The current COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and we need innovative ways of coming out of the current lockdowns. However, we are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large,” they wrote, urging governments not to abuse such technology to spy on their people.

READ MORE: Economic prospects after ‘once-in-a-century’ coronavirus crisis gloomy – but not all doom

We’re already been spied upon

Melbourne University Human Computer Interaction Professor Vassilis Kostakos says the app is merely “formalising something that already exists”. He adds that we are already being tracked in a number of ways which are “comparable but not identical” to what the app will do.

“When you visit the internet and different websites, your browsers have cookies to track where you’ve been,” he told Neos Kosmos.

“Any software that has access to your location data on the phone, on Facebook, are able to record that information to track where you’ve been and at what time.”

People are already reaping the benefits of apps such as this. “Location-based services allow us to take out our phone to find sushi restaurants close to us rather than those in Japan,” Mr Kostakos said, pointing to the convenience this offers.

Data like this is also helpful in emergencies, such as Facebook’s initiative when responding to the Haiti Earthquake, and can “now release this to us for the purposes of understanding COVID-19.”

The only difference which the new app will have is that it will be more succinct. “Tools we already have can trace where you have been, for example, if you visited Melbourne Central at 9.30am, apps can also monitor others who have been there at that time,” Mr Kostakos said. “They can’t however, reliably infer if you were standing next to a person who had COVID-19 and for how long.”

Mr Kostakos believes that the advantages of the tracing app outweigh disadvantages “as long as companies that have this information behave appropriately and within the bounds of the law.”

“If it’s like the Singapore app, I would personally download it,” he said.

It would help those battling on the front lines of the medical crisis, staff who are currently looking for needles in a hay stack when seeking those who have come into contact with those infected COVID-19.
“And at the end of the day, you would still be able to remove the app and delete it,” Mr Kostakos said.