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COVIDSafe: Optimisation Versus Panopticon?

In its early stages, COVIDSafe has already caused quite the stir. Here is a survey of the current and ongoing discussions from the realm of communications relating to the Australian Government’s new tracking app.

Touted as a “virtual handshake," the Australian Corona Virus tracking app (CovidSafe) has been indicated as means to help "state and territory health officials to quickly contact people who may have been exposed to COVID-19”. 

By downloading the app (from the Apple App Store, or Google Play), users are connected via Bluetooth which automates what is referred to as “contact tracing” by recording contact between CovidSafe users and alerting them if one has contracted the virus. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cited that the app is a faster way to end the current social distancing measures that have been imposed nationally, in various degrees. And, to date, more than four million Australians have downloaded CovidSafe. 

While governing elites have lauded the operation as something akin to purchasing WWII war bonds in a bid to increase the war effort, along with national solidarity, there has been a divided stance, and frames, in terms of this particular technological application and its impact. 

Below is a quick survey of the predominant frames associated with the CovidSafe app, from the convenience of datafication, to the perils of a panopticon. 

Datafication

Given that CovidSafe is operationally quantifying aspects of the lives of Australians, the debate regarding the validity of the implementation of CovidSafe has naturally included datafication. 

Much in the same way that datafication has assisted businesses and individuals to streamline processes and increase productivity, using the information stored by CovidSafe could be to the state’s advantage, potentially streamlining the process of testing, along with potentially receiving indicators of certain behaviours and habits that could lead to potential virus spreads. 

Optimisation

As a generalisation, while certain factions of society will remain sceptical to the implementation of technology as a means to improve our lives, certain technological advancements in the form of smart technologies, beacons, search engine preferences, and tracking have had an impact on ease of use, convenience and personalisation. 

While CovidSafe is in its infant stages, it is challenging to assume any form of optimisation. However, should the app receive a significant uptake, the app could impact positively on time factors, crucial to detecting the spread of COVID-19, along with immediate responses (quarantine individuals swiftly, decreasing any potential spread). 

The perils of E-Government

Since Al Gore, during the Clinton-Gore administration cited that it was time to run “government like a business," digitisation has led the charge in terms of streamlining bureaucratic processes and shifting governance models increasingly towards a pre-consultation mode when it comes to policy communication through datafication and automated services. 

The implementation of E-government has received mixed reviews. 

To quote Porumbescu  (2016) e-government could be considered “considerable hype” for a delivery system which didn’t actually deliver what was intended. 

Reason being, that the implementation of E-government aims to transform, or translate, age-old bureaucratic systems into new technologies, leading to miscommunication between the fractions. 

And when something isn’t delivering what it promised, this leads to trust issues. Placing this in the context of CovidSafe, the cost of health systems and other “not speaking to each other” could potentially come at the cost of a citizen’s wellbeing and their trust towards governing elites. 

Panopticon

Lastly, the implementation of a government-initiated tracking device naturally leans itself towards a conversation in terms of surveillance. 

While it has been noted by the Australian Department of Health that CovidSafe would only track a user’s name, age range, postcode and mobile phone number, there is a rising concern in terms of information implementation and what this would mean to an individual’s privacy or their behaviours if they were curbed by the presence of authority in the form of technological surveillance. 

Would the presence of CovidSafe, permitting the government into the lives of Australians, create a panopticon of sorts, where the “unseen watcher” in the prison’s watchtower would enforce the automatic functioning of power? 

As with anything in its infancy, only time will truly tell. 

ACADEMIC REFERENCES CITED: 

Porumbescu, G.A (2016) “Comparing the Effects of E-Government and Social Media Use on Trust in Government: Evidence from Seoul, South Korea”, Public Management Review, 18:9, 1308-1334, DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2015.1100751 

Lyon, D (ed.) (2003) Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London & New York.  

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