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Stuart Palmer
28 April 2020
2 min read

Our Head of Ethics Research Dr Stuart Palmer explains his thought process before he decided to download the new COVIDSafe app.

First things first: this is a personal perspective on the COVIDSafe app rather than an Australian Ethical view.

That’s because government collection and use of personal data raises complicated and important issues about balancing individual freedoms and community interests, as well as the risk of government misuse or mishandling of information. It’s also important to consider how the app works. What information is being collected by the app on my phone? What’s my control over the release of that information? What are the restrictions on the use of the information by government and others, and how might they be circumvented?

These issues all deserve detailed discussion and consideration. My personal decision began with some thought about objections I had heard from critics of the app.

It won’t work.

Think websites crashing, massive IT project overruns, technology white elephants. Okay, but think also how digital technologies have, learning from failure, transformed our lives in many positive ways. This tech will likely have teething problems, it might not work at all, but its prospects look good and the upside from success is high.

Not enough people will opt-in for the app to be effective.

I don’t understand the thinking behind this objection. Even if it’s true or likely that most won’t download the app, is that a reason for me not to if I think it’s the right thing to do? The objection is self-fulfilling. It sounds like the logic of a fossil fuel defender who wants the rest of the world to go first before turning off our own coal power and exports.

I don’t like or trust politicians.

Fair enough, but shouldn’t I still cooperate to support positive government initiatives?

It infringes my rights.

At this point I have to admit to worrying less about Australian government misuse of my personal information than many Australian Ethical staff and customers. I was a defender of the government ‘My Health Record’ while many others chose to opt out. I saw it as a great way to improve the efficiency of public health spending by reducing duplication, improve diagnosis and treatment of individuals, and help with research into many disabling health conditions. Others worry more than me about the misuse of personal information collected by government (eg, to suppress freedom of speech and target political opponents). I acknowledge those concerns, but I reckon – perhaps optimistically – that there will be future opportunities to make decisions and take action to resist threats to democracy in Australia from this sort of collection of personal information.

That was enough for me to at least hit ‘download’. The next step was to enter my details, and the app asked to disable my power saver setting to allow Bluetooth to stay on. My phone is over two years old, so battery life is no small thing. At this point perspective kicked in. There’s so much to be gained from an app which can contain outbreaks of the virus. Lives will be saved. Isolation and distancing requirements can be relaxed, which will help people get back to work, see loved ones, help others and get on with their lives.

This is a purpose-driven app. How great to have one on my phone which will actually contribute to my wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. How different to the other apps I misuse and over-use, which harvest so much more of my personal data to sell me stuff I don’t need or even really want. How different to the other apps I downloaded with so much less consideration of their privacy implications.

And that’s where my ethical deliberations ended. Perhaps not the exhaustive analysis you might expect of an ethics researcher, but I think it’s clear enough that downloading the app is the right thing for me and most people to do.

Over to you.

Dr Stuart Palmer is the Head of Ethics Research at Australian Ethical.

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