The magic toilet brush of failure

How the government is screwing up contact tracing.

The symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, a dry cough and a strange sort of raspy breathing noise. Turns out that’s the asthmatic huffing of surprise Season 3 Mindhunter maxi-villain and super-evolved murder tuber Peter Dutton as he closes in on you thanks to the app you installed on your phone to protect you from COVID-19.

Gasp! Oh noes!

Thankfully, the government’s contact tracing app will be brought to you by same government which brought you MyGov, the cursed portal built atop an unconsecrated cemetery, that served a city of the damned, which sank its foundations into a Hell Dimension.

Also, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert is in charge and when he turns the full wattage of his dim, cerebral bulb on this issue we can undoubtedly look forward to a contact tracing app that couldn’t find its own gigantic arse with both hands in a small, well lit room.

Robert it was, after all, who made no provision for increased demand at Centrelink offices as hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed lined up in the first days after lockdown. The same Roberts who blamed a cyber attack for the failure of the census website because it seems not to have occurred to him that anyone might actually use it to lodge a census form.

If you think of Government Services as the workaday plumbing of Commonwealth administration, Stuart Robert is less a sturdy tradesman tending to the pipes and conduits of representative democracy, than he is the forlorn toilet brush you wouldn’t even bother with because it’s obviously not up to the job.

Well before Stuey waves the magic toilet brush of failure over the government’s contact tracing plans, and murmurs the ancient words of power—“It was the Chinese cybers fault”—the app as currently proposed has a couple of near fatal flaws. Rushing to get something, anything, onto your phone the government decided to borrow their source code from Singapore’s TraceTogether app. But copying a cheeky remix from Singapore, which has never once wet the bed with anxiety over trading away individual liberties to service the authoritarian demands of a shopping mall-dictatorship, probably wasn’t a first step up the happy staircase to successfully convincing twenty-million or so Australians that nosy cops, Robodebt narcs or the tax office would never ever, dare even take a peak under the covers of this thing.

Even its own members sniffed a bottled unicorn fart. Barnaby Joyce, a bloke with understandable reason to worry about anybody being able to keep tabs his movements, straight up refused to download it. Ever. (Although, to be fair, it’s unclear from reports whether he was talking to the PM, his ex-wife or his blushing handmaid, Ofbarn, at the time). I’d lay money on the barrelhead that his colleague George Christensen would likewise be pissing kittens any technology which made it easier to tell whether he was in Mackay, Proserpine or Tickles Go Go Bar in Manila.

Joyce’s tantrum inspired a week of rhetorical busywork meant to reassure everyone that the government would have zero access to any location data hoovered up by the app. Attorney General Christian Porter promised that Mr Plod would be on Double Secret Probation if he even dreamed about misusing any of the data like any of the times he’d misused all that other data with zero consequences.

Porter, of course, was once upon a time the man responsible for Frankensteining the Robodebt monster.

So, ‘Cool story, bro’, suggests itself as an appropriate response.

But in fact Bonerby’s libertarian stoner-phobia was misplaced because the software isn’t designed to ‘track’ users like, say, Apple’s Find My Friends app - the preferred surveillance option of paranoid helicopter parents everywhere.

Of course, ‘isn’t designed to track’, and ‘couldn’t possibly track’ are two very different states of being. Meaning that the government needs people to trust it.

The government that built Robodebt.

The government that straight up stole hundreds of millions of dollars in sports rorts.

The government that keeps protecting this guy no matter how many times he proves himself to be as sketchy as a Craigslist dick pic illustrator.

The government that let the country burn, and lied about it when the PM pissed off to Hawaii.

Even if their preferred app was the best solution they would struggle with that much of a trust gap. But the best solution, unsurprisingly, is being offered by Google and Apple who have put aside commercial rivalry to work together, tweaking the Android and iPhone operating systems to do everything medical authorities could want from a contact tracer but nothing to get the Deep State’s alphabet factory unduly excited in the pants.

I stole this infographic from the BBC, which totally just copied it from el Goog and the Fruit Company anyway. It explains things nicely.

Patrick Grey, tech-sec wonk and host of the Risky Business podcast—the solid gold disco ball of podcasts for information security professionals—slid into my DMs to explain.

“The proposed Apple and Google proposal uses some encryption magic to make the whole process as privacy preserving as possible. They've managed to engineer a solution that can tell users when they've been in contact with someone who has since tested positive for COVID-19, but that's about it…This system is incapable of showing the government who has been spending time with who on a mass scale.”

Thirsty, footloose bone daddies like Barnaby and the Member for Manila’s Go Go Bars could download it and chill.


It’s not Morrison’s preferred option.

That remains the failed TraceTogether app from Singapore, which has suffered a big spike in diagnosed infections, partly because their useless fucking app was a lot better at destroying smart phone batteries than it was at… well, anything really.

The final, fatal problem of TraceTogether was that it couldn’t run in the background on iPhones. The app was and remains a Bluetooth hog that has to be open to work. As soon as you play music, or take a photo, or check your email, the app dies. Even worse, while it is open, it sucks juice like the unchallenged winner of a knob sucking ultramarathon.

Apple and Google magic away all of that, allowing the app to run in the background, unnoticed until it needs to alert you that you had a close encounter with the ‘rona.

But for now, for whatever reason, Morrison is refusing to consider them, even though mass contact tracing is a precondition for letting us all out of corona jail. Even though millions of people would trust Apple and Google before they’d trust, say, Stuart Robert or Christian Porter or Scotty from Marketing himself.

I doubt there’s a sinister explanation.

He’s just a stubborn prick.

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