Borders, beaches, pubs and churches are closed, large events are cancelled, and travellers are subject to 14 days’ isolation – all at significant cost to taxpayers and the economy. But could telecommunications technology offer a more targeted approach to controlling the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus?
One possibility is to use location history data from the mobile phones of confirmed cases, to help track and trace the spread of infection.
Some people can be contagious without knowing, either because they have not yet developed symptoms, or because their symptoms are mild. These individuals cannot be identified until they become sufficiently unwell to seek medical assistance. Finding them more quickly could help curb the spread of the disease.
This suggestion clearly raises complex privacy issues.
All mobile service providers in Australia are required to hold two years of data relating to the use of each mobile phone on their network, including location information.
For anyone who tests positive with COVID-19, this data could be used to list every location where they (or, more accurately, their phone) had been over the preceding few weeks. Using that list, it would then be possible to identify every phone that had been in close proximity to the person’s phone during that time. The owners of those phones could then be tested, even though they may not necessarily have developed symptoms or suspected that they had come into contact with the coronavirus.
The government could do this in a systematic way. It could assemble everyone’s location history into a single, searchable database that could then be cross-referenced against the locations of known clusters of infection. This would allow contact tracing throughout the entire population, creating a more proactive way to track down suspected cases.
You may well ask: do we want the government to assemble a searchable database showing the locations of almost every person over 16 in Australia over the past month?
Some people will undoubtedly find it a confronting prospect to be contacted by the government and told that surveillance analysis suggests they need to be isolated or tested. Others will be concerned that such a database, or the broad surveillance capability that underpins it, could be used to intrude on our privacy in other ways.
Several countries are already using mobile phone data in the fight against the coronavirus. The UK government is reportedly in talks with major mobile phone operators to use location data to analyse the outbreak’s spread.
India, Hong Kong, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Germany are also among the list of countries taking advantage of mobile data to tackle the pandemic.
The Singapore government has launched an app called Trace Together, which allows mobile users to voluntarily share their location data. Iran’s leaders have been accused of being rather less transparent, amid reports that its coronavirus “diagnosis” app also logs people’s whereabouts.
We may well take the view that the privacy risks are justified in the circumstances. But does the Australian government actually have the power to use our data for this purpose?
The Telecommunications Act requires carriers to keep telecommunications data secure, but also allows federal, state and territory governments to request access to it for purposes including law enforcement, national security, and protecting public revenue.
Being infected with COVID-19 is not a crime, and while a pandemic is arguably a threat to national security, it is not specifically listed under the Act. Limiting the outbreak would undoubtedly benefit public revenue, but clearly the primary intent of contact tracing is as a public health measure.
There is another law that could also compel mobile carriers to hand over users’ data. During a “human biosecurity emergency period”, the Biosecurity Act 2015 allows the federal health minister to take any action necessary to prevent or control the “emergence, establishment or spread” of the declared emergency disease. A human biosecurity emergency period was declared on Sunday 23 March.
In recent years there has been a great deal of debate over the use of telecommunications data for surveillance purposes. The introduction of the mandatory data retention regime was contentious, as was the broad power granted to multiple agencies to access the data for law enforcement.
One reason for the controversy was the relatively low threshold for use of these laws: authorities could access data relating to any suspected offence punishable by three years or more in prison.
Australia is now facing a crisis that is orders of magnitude more serious. Many Australians would be willing to see their information used in this way if it saves lives, limits the economic impact, and impedes the spread of COVID-19.
The Commonwealth has the legal power to do it, the security and privacy issues can be managed, and the benefits may be significant.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) today announced it is suing Google for misleading consumers about its collection and use of personal location data.
The case is the consumer watchdog’s first move against a major digital platform following the publication of the Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report in July.
The ACCC follows regulators in countries including the US and Germany in taking action against the way “tech giants” such as Google and Facebook harvest and exploit their users’ data.
ACCC Chair Rod Sims said Google “collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice”.
The ACCC alleges that Google breached the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) by misleading its users in the course of 2017 and 2018, including by:
not properly disclosing that two different settings needed to be switched off if consumers did not want Google to collect, keep and use their location data
not disclosing on those pages that personal location data could be used for a number of purposes unrelated to the consumer’s use of Google services.
Some of the alleged breaches can carry penalties of up to A$10 million or 10% of annual turnover.
A spokesperson for Google is reported to have said the company is reviewing the allegations and engaging with the ACCC.
According to the ACCC, Google’s account settings on Android phones and tablets would have led consumers to think changing a setting on the “Location History” page would stop Google from collecting, keeping and using their location data.
The ACCC says Google failed to make clear to consumers that they would actually need to change their choices on a separate setting titled “Web & App Activity” to prevent this location tracking.
Google collects and uses consumers’ personal location data for purposes other than providing Google services to consumers. For example, Google uses location data to work out demographic information, target advertising, and offer advertising services to other businesses.
Digital platforms increasingly track consumers online and offline to create highly detailed personal profiles on each of us. These profiles are then used to sell advertising services. These data practices create risks of criminal data breaches, discrimination, exclusion and manipulation.
The ACCC joins a number of other regulators and consumer organisations taking aim at the concealed data practices of the “tech giants”.
This year, the Norwegian Consumer Council published a report – Deceived by Design – which analysed a sample of Google, Facebook and Microsoft Windows privacy settings. The conclusion: “service providers employ numerous tactics in order to nudge or push consumers toward sharing as much data as possible”.
The report said some aspects of privacy policies can be seen as “dark patterns”, or “features of interface design crafted to trick users into doing things that they might not want to do”.
In Canada, an investigation into how Facebook gets consent for certain data practices by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada was highly critical.
It found that the relevant data use policy “contained blanket statements referencing potential disclosures of a broad range of personal information, to a broad range of individuals or organisations, for a broad range of purposes”. The result was that Facebook users “had no way of truly knowing what personal information would be disclosed to which app and for what purposes”.
The ACCC was highly critical of the data practices of a number of large digital platforms when the Final Report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry was published in July this year. The platforms included Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Google.
The report was particularly scathing about privacy policies which were long, complex, difficult to navigate and low on real choices for consumers. In its words, certain common features of digital platforms’ consent processes:
leverage digital platforms’ bargaining power and deepen information asymmetries, preventing consumers from providing meaningful consents to digital platforms’ collection, use and disclosure of their user data.
The report also stated the ACCC was investigating whether various representations by Google and Facebook respectively would “raise issues under the ACL”.
The investigations concerning Facebook related to representations concerning its sharing of user data with third parties and potential unfair contract terms. So far no proceedings against Facebook have been announced.
While penalties of up to A$10 million or 10% of annual turnover (in Australia) may sound significant, last year Google made US$116 billion in advertising revenue globally.
In July, the US Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook on a US$5 billion fine for repeatedly misleading users about the fact personal information could be accessed by third-party apps without the user’s consent, if a user’s Facebook “friend” gave consent. Facebook’s share price went up after the FTC approved the settlement.
But this does not mean the ACCC’s proceedings against Google are a pointless exercise. Aside from the impact on Google’s reputation, these proceedings may highlight for consumers the difference between platforms which have incentives to hide data practices from consumers and other platforms – like the search engine DuckDuckGo – which offer privacy-respecting alternatives.
Tropical cyclone Debbie has made landfall in Queensland as a category 4 cyclone with winds of more than 150 kilometres per hour.
The cyclone crossed the coast near Airlie Beach on Tuesday afternoon. Reports of wind gusts in excess of 200km per hour and rainfall of more than 200mm of rain have been made in some areas along the central Queensland coast.
The Bureau of Meteorology forecasted an average to above-average number of Australian cyclones in its October severe weather outlook. Australia receives 11 cyclones on average each year, with about four of those in Queensland. Debbie is the fifth cyclone of the season for Australia as a whole and the most intense of the season so far.
Anomalously high moisture, warm ocean temperatures, and low environmental pressures seem to have created the conditions that allowed TC Debbie to form and grow in intensity.
Tropical cyclones are low pressure systems that form over warm tropical oceans. The warmth and moisture of the oceans are what gives a cyclone its energy. The low pressure, which meteorologists measure in “hectopascals”, draws in the surrounding warm, moist air, which then rises into deep thunderstorm clouds. As the air is pulled into the centre of low pressure, Earth’s rotation causes it to spin cyclonically and it continues to intensify.
TC Debbie formed at the eastern end of an active monsoon trough extending from the Indian Ocean across the top of Australia and into the Coral Sea. The monsoon trough is a region of low air pressure and thunderstorms that forms over northern Australia in the summer months, bringing with it the wet season. On March 22, a large region of active thunderstorms began to organise into a weather disturbance off the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.
Over the following two days the thunderstorms organised about a circulation centre as sea level pressures began to drop and moist air converged into the area. By late on March 24 a tropical depression, a forerunner of a cyclone, had formed and begun to drift south, making a long S-shaped track.
Tropical Cyclone Debbie was named on March 25. It then came under the influence of the subtropical ridge, a zone of stable high pressure that gives much of Australia’s fine weather during the summer. This drove Debbie west-southwest towards the Queensland coast while it gradually intensified further.
Because of the relatively high amounts of moisture in the atmosphere, and relatively warm ocean waters, Debbie intensified to category 4 by 10 pm on March 27, with the strongest wind gusts reaching 225-280km per hour. On Tuesday afternoon Debbie was a strong category 4 cyclone with a central pressure of 943 hectopascals and surface sustained winds of 185 kilometres per hour. The Bureau of Meteorology downgraded TC Debbie to a category 3 at 4:00 pm EST.
To put Debbie in context, there has been only one cyclone since 1980 to have made landfall in Queensland with a lower central pressure. That was Yasi in 2011.
Of the 46 cyclones to have made landfall in Queensland since 1980, only three others arrived at the coast with pressures of less than 960 hectopascals: Dominic in 1982, Winifred in 1986, and Ingrid in 2005.
Tropical cyclone forecasters use a variety of tools to forecast the storm’s track, intensity, storm surge, and rainfall. Because it is difficult to obtain observations of wind at the ocean’s surface under a cyclone, meteorologists have developed tools based on satellite imagery to estimate a storm’s intensity, location, and where the strongest and most destructive winds are found.
Several models are also used to aid in making forecasts – from the complex numerical weather prediction models, to statistical models. Models start by using observations of the atmosphere, and then use these data to make a forecast.
Depending on their level of complexity the models can predict the future track, intensity, rainfall, wave height, and/or storm surge. The forecasters access all of this information to then make their forecast.
Cyclone forecasts have improved considerably over time. In particular, track forecasts have improved so that the 48-hour forecast is now more accurate than the 24-hour ones were back in the early 1990s. Track forecasting has become so reliable that the US National Hurricane Centre now produces 120-hour track forecasts.
Intensity forecasts have improved more slowly, but as models have become more refined and satellite technology has improved, the ability of forecasters to accurately estimate and predict intensity is also getting gradually better.
The prediction of rainfall, the extent of the damaging wind field, and storm surge forecasts are also slowly improving. Now that they are receiving more attention, we can expect considerable improvements in these over the next decade.
It was a relatively quiet week for internet news until Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald dropped a bombshell on Thursday, with a story that showed the National Security Agency was collecting data from Verizon thanks to a secret court order. But that was just the beginning: the Washington Post later revealed an even broader program of surveillance code-named PRISM, which involved data collection from the web’s largest players — including Google (s goog), Facebook (s fb) and Apple (s aapl) — and then the Wall Street Journal said data is also being gathered from ISPs and credit-card companies.
This story is moving so quickly that it is hard to keep a handle on all of the developments, not to mention trying to follow the denials and non-denials from those who are allegedly involved, and the threads that tie this particular story to the long and sordid history of the U.S. government’s…
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Muslim assailant gruesomely slays Christian, attacks two others with knife.
ISTANBUL, September 23 (CDN) — A funeral for a Coptic Christian gruesomely killed on a village street north of Cairo by a Muslim assailant last week turned into a protest by hundreds of demonstrators in Egypt.
Galal Nasr el-Dardiri, 35, attacked 63-year-old Abdu Georgy in front of the victim’s shop in Behnay village the afternoon of Sept. 16, according to research by a local journalist. Other Copts watched in horror as El-Dardiri stabbed Georgy five times in the back, according to interviews by Gamal Gerges, a reporter for newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh.
As Georgy fell to the ground, El-Dardiri took his knife and stabbed him four times in the stomach. He then disemboweled him, slit his throat and began sawing off his head, according to Gerges. The Rev. Stephanos Aazer, a Coptic priest who knew Georgy and saw photographs of his mutilated body, said the victim’s head was attached to the body by a small piece of flesh.
After killing Georgy, El-Dardiri got on a motorcycle and rode 30 minutes to another town, where he found Coptic shopkeeper Boils Eid Messiha, 40, and stabbed him twice in the stomach, according to Gerges. El-Dardiri immediately left the scene, went to nearby Mit Afif and allegedly attacked Hany Barsom Soliman. Soliman, a Copt in his mid-20s, managed to fight him off.
Messiha was taken to a hospital where he has been operated on at least five times. He remained in intensive care at press time. Soliman suffered lacerations to his arms but was otherwise unharmed.
On Thursday afternoon (Sept. 17), about 1,000 people gathered at Georgy’s funeral to protest the killing and assaults on Coptic Christians. Protestors chanted that Georgy’s “blood was not [spilled] in vain” as they carried signs that read, “Where are you, government? The terrorists are going to kill us.”
Aazer and several other priests participated in the demonstration. Aazer, of the Behnay area, confirmed that police had been monitoring local Copts and even tracking telephone conversations of clergy.
El-Dardiri was arrested on Thursday (Sept. 17) in Cairo and has been charged with murder. It was unclear when he would appear in court.
Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts Great Britain, said Egypt has encouraged the type of “radicalization” that has led to such attacks.
It is the Egyptian government’s responsibility now to stop the persecution and victimization of its Coptic minority by Islamic fundamentalists,” he said. “The persecution and victimization of the Christians in Egypt has been persistent for three decades and recently escalated to a worrying tempo.”
Habib added that Egypt needs to root out Islamic extremists from government agencies, “including the Egyptian police, which frequently show complacency or collusion with the Islamists against the peaceful Christians.”
Report from Compass Direct News