The Guardian • Issue #1967


WA police access COVID app

The WA government has butted heads with their police force over the police’s ability to access data from the state’s contact-tracing app, SafeWA. The government was forced to introduce legislation to block the police after they refused to stop accessing it.

The police had accessed the check-in data collected by the app to locate witnesses during an investigation into the high-profile murder of former Rebels bikie boss Nick Martin. The police had legally accessed the data from the Health Department on two occasions, once over the amurder and another over an unrelated stabbing. This meant that the police got access to all of the check-ins at the requested businesses, not just those of the suspects.

Labor Premier Mark McGowan, with the support of Attorney-General John Quigley, rightfully said that this was a misuse of the data, and that the app should only be used for contact tracing purposes. McGowan had known since April that the police had accessed the data once but did not act on it at the time.

Even though the police were able to access the data legally, doing so undermines public trust in not only the police, but in the security of their data. The ease with which the police are legally allowed to access people’s location data through the SafeWA app may undermine compliance with contact tracing check-ins. This defeats the purpose of having a contact tracing app in the first place and only poses a further risk to public health and safety.

While WA has remained particularly vigilant in containing its COVID cases, it does raise questions for the rest of the country. This distrust may seep over the borders if residents in other states and territories begin to suspect that police have been accessing their contact tracing apps.

WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson defended the police’s actions, saying “they were exceptional circumstances” and that he didn’t believe that the actions of his officers constituted a breach of the public’s trust. However, no information was offered as to what those “exceptional circumstances” were. You would think the police would already have a system in place to locate witnesses. This was confirmed by Quigley, who stated that the police “have at their resources, far more sophisticated methods of locating someone’s whereabouts.” So why use the app?

This case raises broad questions about data, surveillance, and more specifically, how government agencies are able to access and use the data of the population. There’s a common saying, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This is a position we must thoroughly reject. A government surveilling its populace is nothing new. In fact, one of the people who popularised the phrase was Upton Sinclair, an American award-winning novelist/journalist whose exposés into labour violations and political corruption were very influential in improving the lot of the working class. He even ran for Congress for the Socialist Party and then later for the Democratic party. A government official had said the phrase to him after he went in to complain that not only his mail, but the mail of all his friends and relatives, had been opened and inspected.

So why should we reject this seemingly common-sense idea of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”? Sinclair provides a very interesting response to this in The Profits of Religion:

“He [the government official] is quite willing to take real evidence if he can find it; but if not, he has familiarised himself with the affairs of his victim, and can make evidence which will be convincing.”

Sinclair is pointing out a distinction that remains with us to this day: our privacy vs the law. By rifling through our data for evidence, or Sinclair’s mail in the example, government agencies obtain a lot more information about us than is necessary for the limited purpose of criminal investigation. This information about our lives does not have to be overtly illegal for it to be potentially used against us.

Location data can easily be used to locate protestors at rallies, union strikers at pickets, etc. Once one person is located, it does not take a lot of effort to find out who else they’ve been in contact with. Given ASIO’s recent, and vague, redefinition of “extreme” left-wing and right-wing political activities under the umbrella term “ideologically motivated violent extremism” there is a potential expanded scope for ASIO to build profiles on activists (see Guardian “ASIO obscures political ideologies” #1955). Despite the assurance that the location data would be kept safe and secure for a single public health-oriented purpose, the fact that the WA police were legally able to request that information from the Health Department demonstrates that there are always loopholes.

While data harvesting has undoubtedly massively increased the surveillance capacities of the state, it also has a decisively economic factor. Data is an incredibly profitable source of income for corporations, particularly social media platforms. The interactions between users allow corporations to create what are deceptively named “digital doubles” which are effectively profiles of users that they can then sell to advertising agencies to target ads at them. The social media platforms themselves create similar profiles based on user interactions with the site to create algorithms which tailor the content the user sees. While none of this is particularly new to anyone, it masks a decisively Marxist analysis.

Social media sites like Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Twitter etc do not produce any of their own content, the users do. All of the wealth of these companies comes from the labour of the users in the form of data. Once we tear off the mask of the “digital double” we discover that the user’s labour is being used to create what is effectively a digital commodity that gets sold for profit. What is initially presented to us as a simple social media platform that’s used to socialise and stay in contact with our friends is actually the free extraction of labour power. Everything from simply “liking” things on a social media platform to sharing articles, to using it to create content such as videos, is a source of wealth for these corporations. Understanding social media platforms in this way lends an actual substantive Marxist analysis to the phrase “if something is free, you are the product.”

This brings us back to the relationship between government surveillance and social media platforms. The police are able to request information from these platforms if they suspect they can find evidence of a crime. While there are some safeguards and limitations to what they can access, to return to Sinclair’s point, this potentially grants them access to the adjacent personal information of you and the people you interact with. Increased surveillance further entrenches the power imbalance between the citizenry and the state, as citizens do not have the same access to their own data. Under capitalism, this power imbalance translates to greater inequality as the government and police, as arms of the capitalist state, have far greater access to data on the working class than it does on them.

While it is undoubtedly beneficial to have contact tracing apps as a public health measure, the ease with which the WA police were able to access that location data is an abuse of power which has the potential to further entrench that imbalance. By accessing the contact tracing data of the SafeWA app, the WA police have not only undermined faith in the security of people’s data in WA but cast broader doubts on contact tracing apps nationally. The lack of transparency effectively creates a one-way mirror that becomes harder and harder to break as time goes on.

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