China’s ‘surveillance creep’: how big data COVID monitoring could be used to control people post-pandemic


Ausma Bernot, Griffith University; Alexander Trauth-Goik, University of Wollongong, and Sue Trevaskes, Griffith UniversityChina has used big data to trace and control the outbreak of COVID-19. This has involved a significant endeavour to build new technologies and expand its already extensive surveillance infrastructure across the country.

In our recent study, we show how the State Council, the highest administrative government unit in China, plans to retain some of those new capabilities and incorporate them into the broader scheme of mass surveillance at a national level. This is likely to lead to tighter citizen monitoring in the long term.

This phenomenon of adopting a system of surveillance for one purpose and using it past the originally intended aims is known as “function creep”.

In China, this involves the use of big data initially collected to monitor people’s COVID status and movements around the country to keep the pandemic under control. The Chinese government has been quite successful at this, despite recent spikes in infections in eastern China.

But this big data exercise has also served as an opportunity for authorities to patch gaps in the country’s overall surveillance infrastructure and make it more cohesive, using the COVID crisis as cover to avoid citizen backlash.

Mass testing at a factory in Wuhan
Mass testing at a factory in Wuhan, where COVID was first detected in 2019.
AP

How China’s COVID surveillance system worked

Two key shifts have occurred to enable more comprehensive surveillance during the pandemic.

First, a more robust system was constructed to collect and monitor big data related to pandemic control.

Second, these data were then collated at the provincial levels and transferred to a national, unified platform where they were analysed. This analysis focused on calculated levels of risk for every individual related to possible exposure to COVID.

This is how it worked. Every night, Chinese citizens received a QR code to their mobile phone called a “health code”. The code required users to upload their personal information to a special app to verify their identity (such as their national ID number and a biometric selfie), along with their body temperature, any COVID symptoms, and their recent travel history.

The system then assessed whether they had been in close contact with an infected person. If users received a green code to their phone, they were good to go. But an orange code mandated a seven-day home isolation, and a red code was 14-day isolation.

The system was not perfect. Some people suspected their codes remained red because they were from the hotspot province of Hubei, or questioned why their codes unexpectedly turned red for just one day. Others reported the codes incorrectly identified their exposure risk.

Staff checking people's green 'health codes'.
Staff checking people’s green ‘health codes’ at the gate of the entrance to a park in Shanghai.
Yang Jianzheng/AP

How Chinese people feel about this data collection

Multiple studies suggest that although the system was intrusive, this state-controlled, big data monitoring was supported by the public because of how effective it was in containing the epidemic.

A recent study found the public viewed this comprehensive data collection as positive and that it helped strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese public also viewed the initial criticism from Western countries as unfair and hypocritical, given many subsequently adopted varying forms of big data collection systems themselves.




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One scholar, Chuncheng Liu, canvassed Chinese social media and observed a notable social backlash against this type of criticism. After the state of South Australia released a new QR code system, for example, one comment read:

China QR code – ‘invasion of privacy, invasion of human rights’. Australian QR Code – ‘Fantastic new tool’.

On the flip side, there has been some public resistance in China over the potential for health codes to be re-engineered and used for other purposes.

The city of Hangzhou was the first to implement the health codes in February 2020. However, in May 2020 when the municipal government proposed re-purposing the app for other uses after the pandemic (such as mapping people’s lifestyle habits), it was met with strong citizen backlash.

Concerns were further exacerbated when health code data was hacked in Beijing in December 2020. The hackers published the selfies that celebrities had used for biometric identity verification, as well as their COVID testing data.

How these systems can be used for other purposes

When big data systems become as expansive as they are now in China, they can shape, direct and even coerce behaviours en masse. The implications of this in a surveillance state are concerning.

In the Guangxi autonomous region in March 2020, for example, one party member suggested using pandemic surveillance to “search for people that couldn’t previously be found”, effectively turning a health service into a security tool.




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Another example is how China’s notorious “social credit system” was revamped during the pandemic.

The system was originally set up before the pandemic to rate myriad “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy” behaviours among individuals and businesses. Good scores came with benefits such as cheaper transportation.

During the pandemic, this system was expanded to reward people for “good pandemic behaviour” and punish “bad pandemic behaviour”. Two academics in the Netherlands found punishments were imposed for selling medical supplies at an inflated price or counterfeit supplies, or for violating quarantine.

Such behaviour could get a person blacklisted, which might deny them the ability to travel or even serve as a civil servant, among other restrictions.




Read more:
Hundreds of Chinese citizens told me what they thought about the controversial social credit system


As we argue, it is crucial these surveillance systems embed principles of transparency and accountability within their design. If these systems aren’t thoroughly tested or their potential future uses questioned, people can become habituated to top-down surveillance and function creep.

To what extent these new surveillance systems will direct the behaviours of people in China remains to be seen. A lot depends on how the public reacts to them, especially as they are used for non-health purposes after the pandemic.The Conversation

Ausma Bernot, PhD Candidate, Griffith University; Alexander Trauth-Goik, , University of Wollongong, and Sue Trevaskes, Head of School (Interim), Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why pushing for an economic ‘alliance’ with the US to counter Chinese coercion would be a mistake


Leah Millis/AP

James Laurenceson, University of Technology SydneyThe Australian government desperately hopes this week’s AUSMIN meetings between Australian and US officials will see greater practical American support being delivered in the face of ongoing trade strikes by China.

Reports confirm that measures to combat Chinese economic coercion will be discussed at the meetings between Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and their American counterparts.

This desire is readily understood: China’s US$14.7 trillion (A$20 trillion) economy towers over Australia’s at $US1.3 trillion (A$1.7 trillion). And since May 2020, China has blocked or disrupted around a dozen Australian exports, including beef, wine, barley and coal. Previously, sales of these goods to China had been worth more than A$20 billion per year.

Yet, there is good reason to question whether repurposing the ANZUS security alliance to tackle economic issues — and working ever more closely with Washington on initiatives aimed at Beijing — represents a coherent strategy for Canberra to get what it wants.

In 2017, the leading Australian foreign policy practitioner, Allan Gyngell, wrote that the animating force behind Australia’s foreign policy has long been a “fear of abandonment” by a “great and powerful friend” – first the United Kingdom, and since the ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951, the US.

The US has consistently signalled its support for Australia in its trade dispute with China — at least, rhetorically.

Late last year, Jake Sullivan, the new national security adviser in the Biden administration, declared the US stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Australia.

Then, in March, Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s “Indo-Pacific czar”, assured Australian media the US was “not going to leave Australia alone on the field”. This message was repeated in May by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Yet, when Trade Minister Dan Tehan went to Washington in July, he received a more tepid message regarding Australia’s stoush with China.

Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, was only prepared to say the US is “closely monitoring the trade situation between Australia and China” and she “welcomed continuing senior-level discussion”.

The US is not always a reliable partner

What has been particularly jarring isn’t just that the Biden administration has stopped at rhetoric, without offering any material support to Canberra. Rather, it has persisted with choices that actively hurt Australia.

One example is a continuation of the tariffs the Trump administration unilaterally imposed on Chinese imports, which were subsequently assessed by the World Trade Organisation as being inconsistent with international rules.

The US then appealed the decision, which effectively ended China’s legal challenge to the WTO. This was because the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appeals body as the terms of serving judges expired.

As a result, the body was left completely paralysed in November 2020. Last month, the US rejected a proposal from 121 other WTO members to have it restored.

Lacking the sheer power of the US or China, Australia relies on global adherence to WTO rules to protect its trade interests. But the US actions mean the rules can no longer be enforced.




Read more:
Dan Tehan’s daunting new role: restoring trade with China in a hostile political environment


Another example is Tai’s insistence in February that China “needs to deliver” on the bilateral trade deal that Washington pressured Beijing into signing in January 2020.

This granted American producers favourable access to the Chinese market compared with their Australian competitors. It also served as another demonstration to China that big countries are able to use their power to coerce others.

Australia still likely to double down on US support

That US support for Australia hasn’t gone beyond rhetoric is in a sense not surprising. To do so would involve a political or economic cost to the US. The bilateral trade deal it struck with China, for example, benefits American producers.

But as Gyngell’s analysis suggests, tepid US support to date is more likely to prompt Australia to double down on its efforts to seek more US help.

Addressing the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in August, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that in view of China’s economic coercion, he believed “bilateral strategic cooperation must extend to economic matters”.

He proposed a “regular strategic economic dialogue” — an extension of AUSMIN talks that cover defence and foreign affairs – between key senior US and Australian economic and trade officials.

The American response to the proposal was reportedly “non-committal”.

Nonetheless, a new report commissioned by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney backed Morrison’s call and advocated an alliance response to China’s trade strikes on Australia.

Reasons to be concerned about an economic ‘alliance’

There’s nothing wrong with an economic dialogue with Washington. But there’s two important considerations for Canberra to reflect on.

First, the pain that Beijing has been able to inflict on the Australian economy by disrupting exports has been limited.

A new analysis by the Australia-China Relations Institute looked at 12 goods that were disrupted by China’s economic coercive actions — everything from barley to rock lobster. And it found that for nine of those 12 goods, the cost incurred by Australian exporters has been less than 10% of the total export value.

The analysis also found that in the first half of 2021, the value of Australia’s overall goods exports to China was actually 37% higher than the previous record set in 2019.

What this means is that China’s trade strikes are nowhere close to being an existential crisis. The Australian economy can weather the storm, with or without US support.

Second, what Australia wants most is for China to follow global trade rules and for these rules to be updated and extended to cover more activities, like government subsidies for agriculture and fisheries.

But the ANZUS alliance is ill-equipped to deliver on this. It has no legitimacy in setting or enforcing global trade rules. And the US has a poor record of following the existing WTO rules itself.

Further complicating matters, the US has designated China as a “strategic competitor” since 2017.




Read more:
Trump took a sledgehammer to US-China relations. This won’t be an easy fix, even if Biden wins


But as Peter Varghese, Australia’s former chief diplomat noted in June,

that does not automatically make it the strategic competitor of Australia.

The more the idea of an “economic alliance” with the US on par with its security alliance is embraced, the greater the danger of Australia getting bogged down with the US in a “forever war” against its largest trading partner — in this case, spilling treasure rather than blood.

Alternatively, the US might cut another bilateral trade deal with China, leaving Australia on the sidelines again.

If the Australian foreign and defence ministers emerge from this week’s AUSMIN meetings empty-handed on the economic front, the public might, in time, consider itself lucky.The Conversation

James Laurenceson, Director and Professor, Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why can’t Australia make mRNA vaccines? Because we don’t make enough ‘deep technology’ companies


Pfizer/AP

Julian Waters-Lynch, RMIT UniversityCaught out by its strategy to bet on COVID-19 vaccines that could be made in Australia, the federal government is now scrambling to manufacture mRNA vaccines locally.

Its “approach to market” strategy has effectively asked companies how much government money they need to do so. But even with subsidies, this plan will take years.

So why can’t Australia make the mRNA vaccines?

That’s not actually the right question to ask. The crucial issue is why Australia hasn’t been producing the type of companies that can make mRNA vaccines. Why don’t we produce more start-ups like BioNTech or Moderna – the two companies that developed and brought the mRNA vaccines to market?

Answering this question is important not just to vaccines but to the whole range of “deep technologies” that will shape economic development and sustainability in the 21st century.




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Australia may miss out on several COVID vaccines if it can’t make mRNA ones locally


What is deep technology

Technology is generally defined as the application of new knowledge for practical purposes. Deep technology is slightly different. It refers to the type of organisation required to bring certain types of technological innovation to fruition.

It is more accurate to talk about deep technology ventures. BioNTech and Moderna are two such examples. Both are relatively young companies — BioNTech was founded in Germany in 2008, Moderna in the US in 2010 — that have brought to market a technological solution underpinned by substantive advances in scientific research, engineering and design.

Deep-tech ventures span advanced materials, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, blockchains, robotics and quantum computing. A few are now household names, such as Tesla and SpaceX, but most fly under the radar of public awareness, as Moderna and BioNTech did before the pandemic.

They include synthetic biology companies such as the Ginkgo Bioworks and Zymergen, which can program organisms to create completely new biologically based materials for use in manufacturing. These “biofoundries” can produce everything from biodegradable plastics, new protein-based foods to probiotic microorganims that improve human health.

There are advanced engineering companies such as Carbon Engineering and Climeworks, working on ways to suck carbon dioxide from the air to use for industrial purposes.

There are experimental energy companies such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion, which are working on making the holy grail of clean energy technology, nuclear fusion, a reality.

Australia’s problem with deep tech

Australia’s problem with deep technology ventures isn’t to do with the quality of our science and research. We produce, per capita, nearly twice as many scientific research papers as the OECD average.

We also have some great support structures, such as the CSIRO, the national research and science agency, and Cicada Innovations, the deep-tech venture incubator in Sydney.

The problem is our inability to take our scientists’ knowledge and turn it into innovative ventures. Other countries are much more successful at this. Britain, Germany and France, for example, all publish fewer research papers than Australia per capita but produce far more patent applications — a key indicator of potential research commercialisation. The US produces nine times as many per capita.

The ‘valley of death’

Australia’s primary challenges here are related to the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and our current mechanisms for long-term venture funding.

Deep-tech ventures usually require longer time horizons to translate new scientific insights into commercially successful products. Few universities are set up to see this process through. Public funding mechanisms prioritise basic research leading to publications, not the entrepreneurial processes required to find a market fit for a new product or solution.




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Nor are venture capital funds — the normal providers of seed funding — well placed to fund deep technology ventures. This is partly because the science itself can be difficult to understand. Also many funds prioritise ventures that can “exit” through an acquisition or public offering within 10 years.

The complex science and length of time needed to commercialise deep tech mean many good ideas die in the so-called “valley of death” — the gap between initial seed funding and sustainable revenue generated from product sales. This gap is filled in some countries by investments from sovereign wealth funds, more “mission” oriented government programs and even prizes. Australia has yet to emulate these solutions.

These issues help explain why Australia’s investment in R&D as a portion of GDP over the past decade has declined, from a peak of 2.3% in 2008 to 1.8% in 2019. That puts us below the OECD average (2.47% in 2019), well behind innovation leaders such as Israel (4.9%), South Korea (4.6%) and Taiwan (3.5%).

In 2020 only 12 Australian companies were listed among the world’s top 2,500 R&D leaders (as ranked by EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard). This compares with Taiwan (88), South Korea (59) Switzerland (58), Canada (30) and Israel (22).

What can we do about it?

Australia’s future economic prosperity depends on our ability to translate scientific advances into innovation and entrepreneurship. Technological innovation is the only driver of economic growth over the long term. MIT professor Robert Solow won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work demonstrating this point.

To correct our trajectory requires more “patient” capital. We are one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis, but too much wealth is locked up in property ($8 trillion) and superannuation funds ($3.8 trillion) opting for “safer” investments.

If just 0.1% of superannuation assets were allocated to fund deep technology ventures, Australia would have a fund about as large as the nation’s entire current venture capital pool invested in the past financial year.

We also need leadership around a shared vision of the benefits of deep technology entrepreneurship. Not enough Australians recognise the importance of science and technology in driving both economic prosperity and addressing global challenges. Some are even suspicious that technology causes more problems than it solves.

But these ventures will be crucial to addressing pressing development and sustainability challenges, including climate change.

Tomorrow’s economy and society will be built with today’s scientific breakthroughs in deep technology ventures.The Conversation

Julian Waters-Lynch, Lecturer Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Organisational Design, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NSW and Victoria admit they won’t get back to COVID-zero. What does this mean for a ‘fractured’ Australia?


Amalie Dyda, The University of QueenslandAustralia’s two most populous states have now conceded they are unlikely to return to COVID-zero.

The highly infectious Delta variant has spread significantly in both states, making contact tracing and containment more difficult.

This may be welcome news for those in Sydney who have been under stay-at-home orders since June, and those in Melbourne who have lived through more than 220 days of lockdown over the past 18 months. It means these states will leave strict lockdowns eventually without having to wait for case numbers to decrease to zero.

But with other jurisdictions across the country continuing to pursue COVID-zero, what does this mean for Australia?




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States and territories divided

The future is likely, at least in the short term, to look similar to the current situation with different rules for different states and territories.

Those states pursuing COVID-zero may have greater freedoms, almost resembling pre-COVID life, with generally low levels of restrictions such as mandatory venue check-ins. Though strict lockdowns would be likely when cases do appear.

States like New South Wales and Victoria will require ongoing low level restrictions, such as masks and capacity limits — even with vaccination rates of 70%–80% of over 16s.

Moderate or strict lockdowns would likely still need to occur in response to rising case numbers and local outbreaks.

The importance of ongoing low-level restrictions has been shown consistently by Australian modelling and is highlighted by the current rise in case numbers in the highly vaccinated population of Israel.




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How will this impact travel?

Likely the biggest impact of divided COVID-zero policies across states and territories will be interstate travel, with different rules between jurisdictions depending on their COVID-zero status.

Restrictions imposed to date would suggest travel between COVID-zero states and territories, who haven’t had any recent COVID cases reported, would be allowed.

There’s also the possibility of interstate travel occurring between jurisdictions with ongoing community transmission.

Will other states give up on COVID-zero?

As the virus continues to spread, other jurisdictions across Australia may also stop trying to reach COVID-zero.

NSW and Victoria having high levels of ongoing community transmission makes other states and territories more vulnerable to imported COVID infection.

For example, we’ve already seen cases from truck drivers reported in Queensland and South Australia.

However, tight border control and strict lockdowns when required do appear to be working in some jurisdictions, for example Western Australia.




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How will vaccination impact this?

Modelling by the Doherty Institute and the Grattan Institute suggests easing restrictions at 80% vaccination coverage is manageable.

As vaccination rates increase, the need for lockdowns and strict restrictions decreases.

In terms of vaccination, New South Wales is currently leading the way with 76.4% of over 16s vaccinated with at least one dose, and 43.6% fully vaccinated.

Other states’ vaccination rates are also rising, albeit more slowly. Approximately 36% of over 16s in Western Australia and Queensland are fully vaccinated.

If the current rate of rollout continues, it’s anticipated 70% of over 16s in Australia could be vaccinated by early November, with 80% coverage reached later in the same month.

Graphic showing days until Australian vaccination targets reached
Australia could reach its 70% vaccination target at the start of November, and 80% not long after.
COVID Live, CC BY

With vaccination rates increasing rapidly and restrictions easing despite high case numbers, NSW and Victoria may provide test cases for the other Australian states and territories in terms of a roadmap to living with COVID.

While modelling provides a tool to guide decision makers about what to expect, these calculations are based on a number of assumptions. Predicted outcomes differ depending on key factors such as the ability of the public health workforce to maintain optimal contact tracing.

The real world experience of decreasing restrictions with COVID transmission in the community will provide important information for those that follow.




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It’s important to remember, while the country is slightly fractured in its current response, we are all in this together. As vaccination rates continue to rise in the coming months, states and territories will likely return to a more level playing field.

In good news, it does seem we will have more freedom in the coming months as vaccination rates continue to rise.

But this will be an evolving situation that requires constant monitoring and changes in response to the local spread of disease, with all states and territories likely to require low level restrictions for some time.

With the easing of restrictions, it’s important we all listen to and follow public health directions and get vaccinated as soon as we can to try to maintain manageable case numbers and workload for our public health workforce.The Conversation

Amalie Dyda, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Kristina Keneally’s house switch stops one row, starts another


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraWhen Tanya Plibersek – who many believe would give Labor its best chance if she were leader now – was asked about the party parachuting Kristina Keneally into the safe seat of Fowler, she slid all around the place to avoid giving a direct answer to an awkward question.

What might be called the Keneally “Fowler solution” is the outcome of Labor’s dilemma over its Senate ticket. Its two NSW senators from the right faction, Keneally and Deb O’Neill, were battling over who would get the ticket’s number one spot. With the left in the second spot, the loser would be relegated to the third place, considered unwinnable.

Anthony Albanese claims Keneally, as Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate, would have been on the top of the ticket if she’d nominated. But O’Neill had strong union support.

Regardless, Keneally’s endorsement by the right faction for Fowler – being vacated at the election by the retirement of the popular Labor whip Chris Hayes – stopped a row. But it started another one.

When he announced he was retiring Hayes strongly promoted a young lawyer, Tu Le, daughter of Vietnamese refugees, to succeed him. She ticked boxes on gender, diversity and local grounds.

Keneally’s pushing her aside has caused outrage in some Labor circles.

Labor MP and Muslim Anne Aly told the ABC: “Diversity and equality and multiculturalism can’t just be a trope that Labor pulls out and parades while wearing a sari and eating some kung pao chicken to make ourselves look good”. She added, “I’m one of the few people of culturally, linguistically diverse backgrounds in the parliament – this matters to me”.

Appearing on the ABC on Sunday Plibersek was pressed about where she stood on the matter.

She tried a bluff: “I’m a glass half-full person. Aren’t we lucky in the Labor Party to have three fantastic women, all who want to be in parliament representing the Labor Party”.

Several follow ups, and several dodges, later, Plibersek was where she started: “I think Kristina is a fantastic candidate who’s made a great contribution. I also think Deb O’Neill has made a wonderful contribution in the Senate, and Tu Le has got a big future.”

While Keneally’s installation may be a snub to some locals, it should be noted it doesn’t deprive ALP branch members of a rank and file ballot they would otherwise have had.

Through a peculiar arrangement that goes back decades and has its origins in branch stacking, the preselection process for Fowler, a seat designated for the right, is very top down. The right faction selects its candidate, who is then rubber stamped by the party.

Keneally’s facilitated passage into Fowler is the latest break for the one-time NSW premier who lost the 2011 state election. She was a favourite of Bill Shorten and the candidate chosen to contest the 2017 Bennelong byelection. Then after Sam Dastyari quit the Senate as a result of revelations he’d promoted Chinese interests, Keneally took the casual vacancy.

After the 2019 election Keneally became the opposition’s deputy Senate leader, elbowing out right numbers man Don Farrell. This put her number four in Labor’s hierarchy. As home affairs spokeswoman she aggressively took the fight up to then home affairs minister Peter Dutton. They were well matched.

At Friday’s right faction meeting which endorsed her, Keneally described herself as the “accidental senator” and thought her “brawler” style better suited to the lower house.

Given her quick rise and her take-no-prisoners political approach, the question inevitably is: how high can Keneally hope to fly?

Those close to her say her move isn’t driven by leadership ambitions. Maybe not, but if her career up to now is any guide, it would be strange if she didn’t harbour them.

However she is not universally popular in the party and if Labor loses, it would be too early for her. The favourite to become opposition leader would probably be Plibersek who, while on the left, would overwhelmingly win a ballot among the rank and file, which gets a 50% say, with caucus having the other 50%.

UPDATE: JOEL FITZGIBBON TO QUIT PARLIAMENT AT THE ELECTION

Labor maverick Joel Fitzgibbon has announced he will not run at the next election.

Fitzgibbon, who holds the NSW coal seat of Hunter where there was a big swing against the ALP in 2019, quit the shadow cabinet last November, declaring himself on a mission to push Labor towards the centre on issue such as climate and coal, and put “the labour” back into the Labor party.

He said on Monday: “I feel I can now leave the parliament knowing Labor can win the next election under the leadership of Anthony Albanese”.

He said Labor would win “if it sells itself as a party of strong economic management and one with strong national security credentials. A party which encourages economic aspiration.

“A party committed to improving job security and lifting real wages. A party prepared to back our major export industries. A party committed to equality of opportunity for all, particularly our children”.

Fitzgibbon said climate change was an important issue for most Australians too but “should not be the subject of constant and shrill political debate”.

“Australia’s major political parties have a responsibility to build a community consensus on climate change policy,” he said, urging an end to the “climate wars”.

The Fitzgibbon announcement is not a surprise – Albanese had not expected him to stand again.

The Nationals have aspirations in Hunter, although polling done by the Australian Institute in June suggested Labor was in a reasonable position to hold the seat.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’d prefer an ankle tag: why home quarantine apps are a bad idea


Shutterstock

Toby Walsh, UNSWSouth Australia has begun a trial of a new COVID app to monitor arrivals into the state. SA Premier Steven Marshall claimed “every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app”.

He then doubled down with the boast that he was “pretty sure the technology that we have developed within the South Australia government will become the national standard and will be rolled out across the country.”

Victoria too has announced impending “technologically supported” home quarantine, though details remain unclear. Home quarantine will also eventually be available for international arrivals, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The South Australian app has received little attention in Australia, but in the US the left-leaning Atlantic magazine called it “as Orwellian as any in the free world”. Right-wing outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart also joined the attack, and for once I find myself in agreement with them.

Location tracking and facial recognition

The South Australian home quarantine app uses facial recognition software to identify users.
Government of South Australia

Despite the SA Premier’s claims, this isn’t the first such app to be used in Australia. A similar home-quarantine app is already in use for arrivals into WA, and in some cases the Northern Territory.

Both apps uses geolocation and facial recognition software to track and identify those in quarantine. Users are required to prove they are at home when randomly prompted by the application.

In SA, you have 15 minutes to get the face recognition software to verify you’re still at home. In WA, it is more of a race. You have just 5 minutes before you risk a knock on the door from the police.

Another difference is that the SA app is opt-in. Currently. The WA app is already mandatory for arrivals from high risk areas like Victoria. For extreme risk areas like NSW, it’s straight into a quarantine hotel.

Reasons for concern

But why are we developing such home-quarantine apps in the first place, when we already have a cheap technology to do this? If we want to monitor that people are at home (and that’s a big if), wouldn’t one of the ankle tags already used by our corrective services for home detention be much simpler, safer and more robust?

There are many reasons to be concerned about home-quarantine apps.

First, they’ll likely be much easier to hack than ankle tags. How many of us have hacked geo-blocks to access Netflix in the US, or to watch other digital content from another country? Faking GPS location on a smartphone is not much more difficult.

Second, facial recognition software is often flawed, and is frequently biased against people of colour and against women. The documentary Coded Bias does a great job unpicking these biases.

The documentary Coded Bias explains the common inbuilt flaws of facial recognition software.

Despite years of effort, even the big tech giants like Google and Amazon have been unable to eliminate these biases from their software. I have little hope the SA government or the WA company GenVis, the developers of the two Australian home-quarantine apps, will have done better.

Indeed, the Australian Human Rights Commission has called for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition software in high-risk settings such as policing until better regulation is in place to protect human rights and privacy.

Third, there needs to be a much more detailed and public debate around issues like privacy, and safeguards put in place based on this discussion, in advance of the technology being used.

With COVID check-in apps, we were promised the data would only be used for public health purposes. But police forces around Australia have accessed this information for other ends on at least six occasions. This severely undermines the public’s confidence and use of such apps.




Read more:
Police access to COVID check-in data is an affront to our privacy. We need stronger and more consistent rules in place


Before it was launched, the Commonwealth’s COVIDSafe app had legislative prohibitions put in place on the use of the data collected for anything but contact tracing. This perhaps gave us a false sense of security as the state-produced COVID check-in apps did not have any such legal safeguards. Only some states have retrospectively introduced legislation to provide such protections.

Fourth, we have to worry about how software like this legitimises technologies like facial recognition that ultimately erode fundamental rights such as the right to privacy.

If home-quarantine apps work successfully, will they open the door to facial recognition being used in other settings? To identify shop lifters? To provide access to welfare? Or to healthcare? What Orwellian world will this take us to?

The perils of facial recognition

In China, we have already seen facial recognition software used to monitor and persecute the Uighur minority. In the US, at least three Black people have already wrongly ended up in jail due to facial recognition errors.

Facial recognition is a technology that is dangerous if it doesn’t work (as it often the case). And dangerous if it does. It changes the speed, scale and cost of surveillance.

With facial recognition software behind the CCTV cameras found on many street corners, you can be tracked 24/7. You are no longer anonymous when you go out to the shops. Or when you protest about Black lives mattering or the climate emergency.

High technology is not the solution

High tech software like facial recognition isn’t a fix for the problems that have plagued Australia’s response to the pandemic. It can’t remedy the failure to buy enough vaccines, the failure to build dedicated quarantine facilities, or the in-fighting and point-scoring between states and with the Commonwealth.

I never thought I’d say this but, all in all, I think I’d prefer an ankle tag. And if the image of the ankle tag seems too unsettling for you, we could do what Hong Kong has done and make it a wristband.The Conversation

Toby Walsh, Professor of AI at UNSW, Research Group Leader, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.