Should we download The App?

The App is here. It has access to your location; your friends; your preferences; every photo posted of you online; your conversations with others; every event you are interested in or have been to; the other apps you use; the apps your friends use; the games you play; your search history; your personal information; and even some of your voice recordings! This App is not the new CovidSafe app, it is of course Facebook. There has been an uproar in some parts of our community and a revival of privacy advocacy because of CovidSafe. There is something so repulsive about CovidSafe that focuses our outrage. That is, the Australian Government made it and is advocating we all embrace it. This anger is largely misplaced, it misses the bigger picture of data privacy and where the real and ongoing risks have arisen. There is an intense collective scepticism when it comes to government overreach into our private lives. However, what is missing from our collective scepticism is even an ounce of acknowledgement of the overreach of private enterprise into our private lives.

Comparing CovidSafe with Facebook is like comparing a shark attack with deaths from starvation, one makes the news and millions do not. After all, a single death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. The overwhelming volume of data collected from Facebook on each individual is thorough, but there is an equally large power of inference given by the statistical wunderkind, Machine Learning. In addition to the data points of each person, an ever-increasing array of predictive tools are being developed to infer your preferences and personality better than your spouse.

By contrast, the data points used in CovidSafe are minimal and are minor in comparison to the broader issue of the Australian Government’s rather liberal infringement on personal privacy. If you are concerned about giving up your phone number and a list of contacted persons to the government, then you should apply that same scrutiny to the volume of data and information inferred by Tech Giants such as Facebook.

CovidSafe may be testing our social contract with the government, but what of the social contract with Facebook. Indeed, we should thoroughly scrutinise every infringement by the Government on civil liberties and insist on rolling them back whenever they are unreasonable and unjustifiable. The same social rigour should be applied to the aspirant Robert Clives and Rockefellers of Silicon Valley. We are complacent, and we are being taken advantage of.

It may be said that such infringement on civil liberties by the government undermines democracy, a point that does have merit. However, this fails to mention the role that social media is playing in this process as well. We must endeavour to improve our democracy, every unit of outrage we direct towards CovidSafe should also be directed tenfold towards Facebook.

Our hesitance to trust government is a deeply rooted cultural gem that underlies our entire democratic political system. It is understandable that we should expect our information being held in such centralised power to be of a minimal extent, but there is no more centralised hoarder of information than Facebook.

The trust placed in Facebook is arguably because we fail to appreciate the depth and scale of privacy infringement achieved. There are several aspects to this idea. Firstly, we must consider the economic incentives of Facebook and the intent of the Australian Government. Our interests are at least likely to be shared, to a large extent, with our governments. Can the same be said for our interests and Facebook’s? One seeks to maintain a prosperous society, while the other seeks to monetise us. One is democratically accountable for its decisions and policies, while the other is accountable to the shenanigans of boardrooms and rent-seeking shareholders. Secondly, Facebook has not only consistently failed to respect privacy, but actively undermines it. The historical intent is clearly there to push and abuse users’ privacy. Thirdly, we seem to trust Facebook because it is competent, however, given their incentives, we should do the exact opposite. It is precisely because of the combination of competence, mixed incentives, and historical intent that our trust in Facebook should be markedly lower than our trust in CovidSafe.

Facebook’s competency and dubious intent was shown with a radical study, where an ‘emotional contagion’ was employed on unsuspecting users. Here the news feeds of 700,000 users were skewed into separate pools, some shown more negative content, others more positive content, with the aim of changing the mood of these users. The lack of informed consent was, while not illegal, clearly unethical. Again, this highlights the difference between legal and ethical usage of data. While Facebook’s actions may be legal, the ethics of their actions are of secondary concern.

An important point to be noted is that we should understand what the cost of actively undermining trust in government does. Are we really at a point in history where we trust Facebook more than our elected representatives? We are now bearing the fruit of political tools such as the ‘Canberra Bubble’ as well as years of misinformation. We should maintain our sense of historical and political perspective when we make this judgement.

While CovidSafe may provide a useful tool in the fight against COVID-19, there is, of course, a risk to government overreach. What is missing, however, is an acknowledgement of the sustained and proven overreach of the largest surveillance tool ever built, Facebook. The scepticism towards CovidSafe is a very good thing, we should, however, apply an even greater privacy expectation to those who wish to monetise us, not represent us.

While our instincts against CovidSafe are founded in the history of tyrants like Stalin, we are blind to exploitation by Facebook and modern Robert Clives.

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Bodhi Hardinge

Bodhi Hardinge

Interested in technology, climate, and society. Studied at the University of Cambridge and Curtin University.