It’s been a disorientating week for Australia. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. New restrictions are introduced daily, often late at night where people can easily miss them. The government advocates for social distancing and staying at home, yet insist schools are still safe.
And with millions of Australians (the fortunate ones) working from home, our tech infrastructure is strained. We’re not really thinking about how tech can be used to help flatten the curve when government websites don’t work, telcos are struggling and Netflix slashed its bitrate to help fight speed issues. But some countries are doing better than others.
While Australian internet falters and the government sends 150-character texts reminiscent of a drunk dial, other countries are utilising technology to strongly raise public awareness around COVID-19 and actively flatten the curve.
Here’s a few examples of what other countries are doing.
The Australian government has been keen to throw the term 'DDoS Attack' around when its online services fail. We saw this during the 2016 Census and it's being used now to explain the MyGov website going down after the Prime Minister announced a coronavirus payment for Jobseekers. So what exactly is the difference between a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, and a site or service unable to handle the load?Read more
Coronavirus Surveillance South Korea
South Korea is tracing the movements of infected civilians through phones and credit card data, according to the New York Times. Anyone who was nearby a confirmed infection will be sent a text so they can self isolate immediately and keep an eye out for symptoms.
CCTV has also played a large role in identifying COVID-19 patients and those who may have come into contact with them. This is largely because South Korea has over 8 million CCTV cameras stationed across the country.
If this seems extreme, South Korea isn’t alone. Taiwan has a similar surveillance network but also an “electric fence” system, letting police know if an infected person leaves their house or has their phone off for too long.
These particular methods are naturally controversial due to the level of surveillance involved - and the ethics around this deserve a longer and more methodical piece. But whatever your or my feelings around surveillance may be, South Korea is reporting a drop in infection rate.
According to SBS, March 23 saw 64 new cases in the country and it was the 12th day in a row that new confirmed cases was under 100. On February 29 it had peaked at 909 new cases in a single day.
Coronavirus App Singapore
While Australia's reportedly up there with the highest countries in the world when it comes to testing, it certainly hasn't been at the same level as Singapore. The island city-state is one of several Asian nations checking temperatures in public, the New York Times reported.
"It is commonplace before entering any bus, train or subway station, office building, theatre or even a restaurant to get a temperature check. Washing your hands in chlorinated water is often also required," the article said.
Some universities would also photograph where students were sitting in lecture halls, so if someone had the virus, those who sat nearby could be contacted. And like South Korea, Singapore has also utilised surveillance to warn people who came into contact with confirmed cases.
Trace Together sends Bluetooth signals between phones whenever users are near each other. It can tell when they were close to each other and for how long. This data is stored on an individual's phone for 21 days.
Screenshots from the Trace Together app. Images: James Kozanecki
While Trace Together itself is said to not keep location data, the name of the user and can't see their contact list, it can still be used to help identify where an infected person has been and who else may have come into contact with them.
According to CNBC if a Singaporean contracts COVID-19 they are required by law to help the Ministry of Health map their movements and timeline. This reportedly includes handing over app data.
More than 500,000 people reportedly downloaded the app within 24 hours of its release. The developers are creating an open-source variant of Trace Together so other countries can build their own versions. Israel reportedly has a similar app in use as well.
Coronavirus In The United Kingdom
One Western country interested in a surveillance-type app is the United Kingdom. However, according to the BBC questions are being asked regarding how to do it without infringing on privacy.
While talks between prime minister Boris Johnson and tech experts regarding the development of an app occurred on March 12, nothing formal has been announced.
However, following in the footsteps of the World Health Organization (WHO) the UK government has set up a chatbot to provide answers regarding the pandemic.
At the time of writing the chatbot was new, and Gizmodo Australia's UK colleagues hadn't received any messages or even a sign up confirmation.
New Zealand's Coronavirus Text Message
New Zealand is worth calling out as it released a nation-wide emergency text regarding coronavirus on the same day as Australia. But unlike our country it went beyond 150 characters, labelled itself as an emergency warning and didn't include a hyperlink. Hyperlinks are especially dangerous right now, given all the coronavirus related SMS scams that are doing the rounds.
The Australian government text would be very easy to replicate and now if a fake text included a hyperlink of its own, it could look legitimate.
Here's a comparison of the texts sent in each country.
One of these certainly seems more clear, succinct and safer than the other.
Coronavirus Technology Australia
Compared the above, Australia has fallen far behind. We're having trouble keeping the internet stable and sending clear texts. If the current track record is anything to go by, Australia even trying to implement coronavirus-related surveillance, ethically or competently, would be concerning.
Some digital surveillance is already in place. The ABC reported a Chinese couple who had been in Wuhan were tracked via their phones in South Australia earlier in the year. The same system of surveillance is used by the South Australian police to investigate crime.
A team at the University of South Australia has also partnered with a Canadian drone company to develop 'pandemic drones'. However, there is no clear timeline on when they would be ready for use or if the would be used by the government.
If technology isn't destined to play a vital role in Australia, perhaps naive hope can. Could Australia become a country that doesn't need surveillance to do the right thing? Can we be a nation that doesn't need an app to protect the vulnerable and ourselves? Can empathy replace electronics?
I wish I could say yes.