News headlines would suggest the country is on lockdown thanks to coronavirus but if you step outside or head to town centres, many aspects of Australian society continue on seemingly unaffected.
While a lot of us are heeding social distancing and quarantine advice, there are many who are not — in part due to mixed messaging and confusing official advice but some level of obstinance comes into play.
Regardless, it means law enforcement authorities might look to taking more drastic measures and that could include something many would be concerned about — mass mobile phone tracking surveillance.
In various countries, contract tracing – in which infected people’s preceding movements are tracked to figure out who else might be infected – is used to identify contacts of confirmed cases, quarantining and testing them to make sure they haven’t also contracted the contagious virus.
It’s already shown to be extremely successful in places like South Korea where it’s helped to flatten the curve of infection as well as closer to home in NSW.
While interviews and other tools such as checking calendars and shopping dockets have been used in Australia, another method could provide a more accurate, comprehensive look at possible points of spread — phone tracking.
It’s happened in Australia already. In February 2020, ABC revealed South Australian authorities had used metadata to track the movements of a couple who arrived in the state from China’s Wuhan and were confirmed to have coronavirus.
South Australia’s Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said despite it not being a criminal investigation, metadata tracking was required to determine where the couple had visited and who might be at risk.
“We’re doing that to assist SA Health in tracking down the movements of the two people concerned so we can do our best to identify any people who might have been exposed [to coronavirus],” he told the ABC.
“In this case, we think there’s a genuine risk to public safety, and certainly there’s community concern about this, so it’s one of the occasions we elected to use it.”
At the time, Gizmodo Australia contacted a number of state health authorities — NSW, Queensland and Victoria — to see if it was on their minds too but all denied it would be necessary to use at the time.
As things have progressed significantly since then and other countries have begun using phone surveillance efforts to contain the spread, Dr Nik Thompson, a cybersecurity expert at Curtin University, told Gizmodo Australia the legislation is already in place for it.
“If breach of quarantine is being dealt with as a criminal offence, then the framework is already in place for police to request metadata, although possibly not on the large scale that this current situation suggests,” Dr Thompson told Gizmodo Australia.
What Australia’s police authorities say about coronavirus phone tracking
Gizmodo Australia contacted all state police authorities and of those who provided comments — Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia — all denied using phone tracking at this time.
“Victoria Police has the powers to assist the Chief Health Officer if requested and Department of Health and Human Services if there needs to be any enforcement activity,” a Victoria Police spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia over email.
“While we do not generally comment on operational methodology, we can confirm we have not sought any applications to trace mobile devices of people who have tested positive to COVID-19, and at this stage there are no plans to do this in Victoria.”
South Australian Police admitted phone tracking was effective in tracking the movements of where people infected with coronavirus have been but added it was not tracking people’s phones at this point — apart from the aforementioned example.
Tasmania’s acting deputy commissioner, Jonathan Higgins, also said GPS technology was a tool the force was considering but that Tasmanians had been compliant with the self-isolation directives so far.
NSW and Western Australia both declined to comment on whether they were phone tracking cases within the state, citing being too busy or not willing to divulge operational matters, respectively.
Queensland Police did not respond in time for publication but it’s understood it’s not utilising it right now either.
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How phone tracking would work in Australia
In South Korea, aggressive contact tracing measures, including the use of GPS tracking to see where a confirmed case visited has been attributed to the country’s success in stifling the spread, the New York Times reported.
A similar but more shadowy occurrence has happened in Israel when it was revealed the government had beckoned on enhanced spy powers to be used in order to see where confirmed cases had visited. It would then alert anyone who had been in that area via an app.
In Australia, the framework for tracking phone metadata is already in place to do the same and other methods, such as phone signals and GPS tracking, could also be used.
“Under the amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, metadata is collected and retained for all phone and internet users in Australia,” Dr Thompson said.
Dr Terry Goldsworthy, a former detective and now criminology expert at Bond University, said for real-time scenarios, tower signals could also give police an idea of where someone was right now though it was often reserved for emergency situations.
“Police can track someone via their phone in real time by simply triangulating it — that is when it bounces off the towers [and] they can track the location within 50 metres or so,” Dr Goldsworthy said to Gizmodo Australia.
If someone was to be tracked using information from their phone — metadata, signals or GPS — Dr Thompson believed they wouldn’t necessarily need to be informed about it either.
While the Privacy Act 1988 requires people be informed of data collections, there are exemptions to that when it comes to public health and safety.
“We can conclude that Telecom providers that pass on information for the purpose of supporting the public health authorities are not in breach of the Privacy Act. Similarly, Government agencies that directly collect and use the information will be protected for the same reason,” Dr Thompson said.
For now, however, police authorities in Australia have denied using these methods, but that could all change if more people continue to ignore the quarantine and social distancing measures.
“If the environment changes rapidly then I would not be surprised if the response from law enforcement also changes accordingly as they explore new ways to efficiently conduct their investigations,” Dr Thompson said.
But Dr Goldsworthy said if case counts, and those breaching quarantine orders, began to balloon, it would be tough for law enforcement to keep up.
“I would think it may be a possibility in the future, but if the numbers become too big it will simply start to become beyond the resources of the police to enforce,” Dr Goldsworthy said.
The question is whether we should sacrifice privacy in the interest of public health safety, especially given some of those targeted will not likely be aware of it. Dr Goldsworthy agreed given the extraordinary nature of this, it’s probably warranted in this scenario.
“Community welfare in this instance outweighs individual autonomy and the concerns around that. These are extraordinary times that require extraordinary responses,” Dr Goldsworthy said.
Dr Thompson pointed to the Bondi Beach example, which was shut down after hordes of beach-goers arrived despite federal recommendations urging Australians to practice social distancing.
“Given that this is an emergency situation, the potential benefits may outweigh the costs,” Dr Thompson said.
“Consider the recent images of crowds on Bondi Beach ignoring advice from public health authorities — if members of the general public don’t start taking the health advice seriously, then we may well be heading toward a situation where authorities feel compelled to enact stronger measures.”
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Opinion on a public app for coronavirus cases is divided
Singapore has just recently unveiled its new coronavirus tracing app, TraceTogether, which alerts users who come in contact with another person who’s tested positive or is at high risk of contracting the virus.
It does this by tracking user’ locations as well as their proximity to others through Bluetooth and, according to Computer Weekly, the Singaporean government plans to release the app as open source allowing other countries to utilise it.
Gizmodo Australia contacted the Department of Home Affairs to confirm whether it’s looking into the app or a similar offering’s viability for Australia. It did not respond in time for publication but ZDNET reported the federal Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) was seeking to work with an app developer to create an app, which would provide official information about coronavirus.
“This request seeks to engage an experienced seller to partner with the DTA to continue to develop, support, and host a government mobile platform to allow the dissemination of COVID-19 virus information, related restrictions, and other supporting advice and directions,” the overview said, according to ZDNET’s report.
But whether that would work for the public good in Australia is not clear, according to Dr Thompson.
“The health authorities are the ones who need and benefit from this data, and sharing it more widely would likely cause panic,” Dr Thompson said.
“Let’s imagine the social media frenzy that could ensue if case locations were broadly published. This would likely also be a threat to the privacy and safety of those patients.”
A number of state health authorities already release detailed reports updating confirmed cases as well as the confirmed or presumed source of infection. A government app would be able to provide a centralised point of information for Australians who want to keep up-to-date with official information and it’s something Dr Goldsworthy is in favour of.
“I think the more information and intelligence we can gather on the status of the virus, the more rigorous and effective our responses will be,” Dr Goldsworthy said.
“We need as much information as we can get. It is reminiscent of a criminal investigation where police are attempting to move from a low information state to a high information state. The current health crisis is no different.”
For now though, phone tracking, according to responses from law enforcement officials, appears to be on the radar but just out of reach. Given how quickly the situation and its response has already escalated in Australia, it’s a scenario that might soon become reality.
If you have any information regarding technologies being used to track coronavirus cases in Australia, get in touch via [email protected]