'Not cool': Australians baulk at government's 'coercive' coronavirus text

·5-min read

The Australian government’s latest plan to prompt Australians to download its coronavirus tracking app has been labelled “coercive” and “not cool” by some members of the public.

While more than 4.25 million people have downloaded the app, according to the Australian Health Department, not everyone seems to appreciate the aggressive tack taken by the government to drive uptake.

On Monday, the country’s three major mobile carriers sent text messages to customers urging them to download the government app to their device.

COVIDSafe is designed to use Bluetooth technology to ping other devices and log who you have come into contact with for more than 15 minutes.

That data is encrypted and stored within the app and can later be accessed by health authorities to alert people if they have come into contact with a person who tested positive.

Minister for Health Greg Hunt at a press conference to launch the new government app "CovidSafe" on April 26. Source: AAP
Minister for Health Greg Hunt at a press conference to launch the new government app "CovidSafe" on April 26. Source: AAP

While millions have embraced the app, some have baulked at the pressure being placed on them to install it.

“How about you stop pushing the #covidsafe app on everyone, especially with the news it does nothing yet,” one person wrote to Vodafone on Twitter.

“Not cool.”

A number of people referred to the approach as a form of coercion.

“The subtle coercion used tells me they might be prepared to go further in the future,” said one Telstra customer while another user implored Optus not to send unsolicited messages “coercing” people into downloading the app.

“Sounds a lot like blackmail,” said another.

The telcos say the text messages were a result of a formal government request from Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s office.

“The industry is collaborating with Government to support the distribution of important information about how to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Andrew Sheridan, Vice President of Regulatory and Public Affairs at Optus told Yahoo News Australia.

“We welcome this opportunity to play our part in communicating this critical safety information to our customers via SMS from today.”

The Communications Minister has been contacted for comment.

Government wants ‘millions more’ downloads

The government has moved swiftly to allay privacy concerns around the COVIDSafe, saying it does not track the location of users and only health authorities will have access to the data.

However, with a target of roughly 40 per cent of the population using the app, the government has its work cut out for it. And the pitch isn’t helped by its recent track record on data collection including presiding over breaches that saw Home Affairs unlawfully access metadata, as well as more than 3,300 cases of police illegally accessing peoples’ metadata.

On Friday, prime minister Scott Morrison said “millions more” people will need to download the app before lockdown restrictions are rolled back.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd told reporters on the weekend that he believes it is “realistic” to expect millions more to sign up before the national cabinet sits this Friday to consider lifting restrictions.

However, he conceded that app is not yet live and won't be properly up and running until later this week.

Currently, health officials can not view or use the data collected by the app network but will be able to trace back from the time when someone downloaded the app later.

There is also ongoing concerns about the apps functionality on iPhone because Apple stymies apps operating in the background from sending out Bluetooth signals making it difficult for the COVIDSafe app to reliably make the “digital handshake” with other devices. The government has reportedly said it is working on the issue.

The government has also promised to publish the source code of the app, allowing developers to understand precisely how it works. Something it has yet to do.

Government’s messaging dubbed ‘disgusting’ blackmail

The federal government has taken an increasingly demanding tone with its sales pitch for the COVIDSafe app.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly suggested lockdown measures won’t be removed at the federal level if the government isn’t satisfied with the uptake of the app.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has done similar, drawing the criticism of some when tweeting last week: “Want to go to the footy? Download the app.”

The tack has been likened by many online to a form of social and economic blackmail.

Daisy Cousens, contributor for News Corp and a regular guest on right-wing talk shows on Sky News took an unusual swing at the government over its push to get people to download the app.

“Disgusting emotional blackmail,” she posted on Twitter in response to Mr Hunt’s ultimatum.

"We're not making the app mandatory coz we're like super duper nice BUT IF YOU DON'T DOWNLOAD IT YOUR FREEDOMS AND JOBS WILL NOT BE RESTORED!

“Some ‘liberal’ government this has turned out to be,” she complained.

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