South Australia uses facial recognition and geolocation data for quarantine checks.

September 7, 2021 |

The adjective “Orwellian” is both overused and misused.  It is often tagged onto a complaint which does not describe a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It is commonly used by someone to label an argument or, often government, proposal which he or she finds disagreeable.  Unfortunately the South Australian Governments use of an app to geo locate and have facial recognition is for those in quarantine is Orwellian. And how this trial became reality demonstrates the dismal state of policy development and exclusion of any input from the community. 

It is relevant to note that South Australia has no Privacy Act.  There is no regulator to deal with privacy breaches, of which this app has the potential for many.  It is a dismal failure of public policy and panic over prudence.  That there has been no outcry from the polity within Australia is a poor reflection on the state of debate here.  The Civil Society’s response has been inconsistent but largely ineffectual.  The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties has criticised it on the basis that safeguards are not in place (SA facial recognition app trial should not go ahead without safeguards). It is a weak response that accepts that “ was possible for facial verification to be conducted safely and appropriately, with the right safeguards.”  Really!  There is more than a few well regarded privacy and other experts who wouldn’t even accept that proposition.  It is a weak and unimpressive response.  But at least it made a response.  The premier privacy group, the Australian Privacy Foundation has made no statement.  Its last comment on anything was a media release on 25 August about banks doing better (actually it is a combined release titled Banks can do better – Consumer groups make more than 100 recommendations to improve bank behaviour).  Pathetic.

The circumstances are well described in the ABC’s How will South Australia’s home quarantine trial work?

How did it come to this?  A pervasive, intrusive and privacy destroying technology has been embraced by a western government which supposedlly supports liberal traditions of respect for individual rights .  And it has been done without any consultation and near on no public response. That a government can sneak something unpleasant through is hardly newsworthy but how a population can be so supine and a media so uninquisitive is a less welcome development.

The story has been picked up by an incredulous overseas media.  In countries much worse hit by COVID implementing privacy invasive and authoritarian style surveillance is newsworthy.  It has been covered in Australia debuts ‘Orwellian’ new app using facial recognition, geolocation to enforce quarantine, the Atlantic’s Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty, Yahoo’s Australia debuts ‘Orwellian’ new app using facial recognition, geolocation to enforce quarantine, Buzz’s Australia tests ‘Orwellian’ Covid app which uses facial recognition to enforce quarantine and Unilad’s Australia Introduces ‘Orwellian’ Police-Enforced Facial Recognition COVID App.   The Guardian’s coverage, with South Australia facial recognition trial: Covid app blasted by Fox and Breitbart criticised over lack of safeguards, took issue with the lack of protections

 And just to make a dismal turn of events take an even more dystopian turn the Australian Financial Review is running a story that this hideous app could be applied nationally in South Australia’s home quarantine app could be used nationally which provides:

The smartphone application at the centre of South Australia’s home quarantine trial could be rolled out to other states as the nation emerges from COVID-19 restrictions, allowing authorities to track returning travellers to exact locations.

The Home Quarantine SA app uses geolocation and facial recognition software to track those in quarantine. Users are required to prove they are at the designated quarantine location within 15 minutes of a prompt from the application.

Location and health data are linked to registered users of the app, but diagnostics and other personal usage data is not tracked.

Police and health authorities can be dispatched to check compliance with the strict quarantine rules when a user does not demonstrate they are at home as required.

Friday’s meeting of national cabinet considered moves away from existing hotel quarantine across country, with the ongoing trial in South Australia set to guide decisions in phases B and C of the national reopening plan as vaccination rates rise.

States including Western Australia and Tasmania are already using smartphone apps to monitor people required to quarantine at home. Home quarantine for foreign diplomats has also been used successfully in the ACT throughout the pandemic.

Hotel quarantine to be phased out

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed at the weekend she plans to wind up hotel quarantine after full vaccination rates pass thresholds of 70 and 80 per cent, saying it was no longer an efficient use of public resources.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison expects data from the South Australian trial and risk-based information gleaned from reviews by former Health Department boss Jane Halton will help guide an expansion of home quarantine around the country as states move away from hotel quarantine.

Those moves will require more time to allow for higher levels of vaccination. Another 130,636 vaccine doses were administered in Australia in the 24 hours to Monday afternoon, bringing the national rollout total to 20.9 million doses.

Now 63.16 per cent of adults 16 and older have had at least one dose and 38.43 per cent are fully vaccinated with two doses.

NSW is leading the nation on first dose rates, at 74.1 per cent on Monday, while the ACT leads on second doses, at 46.3 per cent.

Qantas and the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia are among organisations advocating for increased use of home quarantine, changes they argue will reduce cost while maintaining high public health standards.

Home testing under consideration

Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday said the Therapeutic Goods Administration was considering approval for home COVID-19 testing kits.

Already widely used in countries including the US and Britain, rapid antigen testing kits can deliver results in as little as 10 minutes. Under current rules, they can only be used under the supervision of a medical professional, but an easing of restrictions is expected.

Mr Hunt told 2GB radio some state chief health officers had previously opposed rapid testing use in the home, with traditional polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing still considered the most accurate technology.

“They prefer what are called the PCR tests – they’re the ones that we all know, there have been 32 million of those done in Australia,” he said.

“But right now, I think,\ we’ve got that momentum. We’ve approved 28 tests.”

He said a decision on wide use of rapid testing at home was expected in the coming weeks or months.





Leave a Reply