In the first week of its release, the government’s CovidSafe app has apparently been downloaded 4 million times. The app has been heavily promoted by government and it has been endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nurse and the heads of the doctors’ and nurses’ unions.
The release of the app was accompanied by a determination issued by the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. He is empowered under the Biosecurity Act to implement measures that support preventing or controlling the spread of disease. Because of early concerns about privacy, and whether the app would be made mandatory or not, the determination covers both those things: only health officials can access data and only with your consent, and no one is allowed to coerce you to download the app, or upload your data.
Despite the government’s eagerness to promote the app, however, it was revealed yesterday that there was not yet provision for health officials to access contact data. Although people who are using the app so far are collecting information about their contacts, that information can’t yet be used by the health department to work out if they have been in contact with a person with COVID.
In addition, the government has not yet shared the full source code for the app. Nor has it yet implemented legislation that it promises will protect users. This legislation will, presumably, also provide answers to how state health officials will access the data.
The government did release a privacy impact assessment (PIA) at the same time as the app. But as @mslods has pointed out on Twitter, a PIA ‘should be undertaken early enough in the development of a project that it is still possible to influence the project design or, if there are significant negative privacy impacts, reconsider proceeding with the project’. Because of the timing of the release of the PIA, the public has not had a chance to engage with these issues before the release of the app.
In short, the tech ‘solution’ to contact tracing is not yet ready to go. So why has government already been so keen for Australians to download the app? The early roll out gives the government scope to maximise uptake before the full governance framework is sorted out. And it is doing this not through conventional processes like public consultation. It is using strategies of gamification.
The online dictionary says that gamification is
the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.
“gamification is exciting because it promises to make the hard stuff in life fun”
Gamification is not new. Small children are given star stickers to encourage good behaviour. There is a leaderboard in events such as walkathons to see who can collect the most donations. Anything can be made into a game, with rewards motivating behaviour independently of any intrinsic motivation concerning doing the task itself.
Digital media has made gamification even easier. We thrive on a good star rating in Uber. We rate books and articles that we read online. We are living in a constant feedback loop of self-affirming ratings. And we always have an eye to unlocking that next achievement badge.
Instead of existing processes of governance that usually surround the introduction of intrusions into citizens’ autonomy, the government is using gamification to encourage the uptake of the app.
Rather than a serious discussion about the surveillance infrastructure already in place in Australia, and how the app will fit into that, we are told that if we want to get back to the pub, we need to download the app. The Health Minister tweeted yesterday:
The government has now told us what that achievement is – we will be rewarded with a return of the ‘things we love‘ if we download the app. And it is our job to tell our friends and family to download it too. The Department of Health website has a suite of communications resources to promote the app. There are handy social media tiles that we can share with our friends once we have downloaded CovidSafe.
By the time we get to see the full disclosures of how the data will be managed (including how it fits within existing government surveillance powers), what the legislation says, and even the full set of code behind the app, we will already have unlocked achievement.
Maybe the app is the key to winding back restrictions – though there is not really evidence to confirm this. But there is a bigger issue at stake here – and that is government harnessing gamification to implement its data strategies instead of working through existing processes of checks and balances.
By playing this game, we are part of a strategy that is unwinding the processes of good government.