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Millions Download Australia’s Controversial Coronavirus Contact Tracing App

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  • Over 2 million Australians have downloaded an app called CovidSafe, which uses Bluetooth technology to log every time a user comes within less than five feet of another user for more than 15 minutes.
  • If someone tests positive, they can choose to tell the app, which will inform the people they came in contact with.
  • According to reports, at least 29 countries are currently using mobile data for contact tracing.
  • Many experts say that this kind of technology is key to reopening economies safely.

Australia Launches App

The Australian government rolled out an app on Sunday called CovidSafe, which uses Bluetooth technology to log every time a user comes within less than five feet of another user for more than 15 minutes.

The government has said that downloading the app is voluntary, and it also affirmed that it will not collect location data.

The information people do provide to CovidSafe includes their name, phone number, postal code, and age range. According to the official government website for the app, that data will be encrypted and stored on each individual user’s phone so that not even the user can access it. 

The website also says that even if someone using CovidSafe does test positive, they would still have to consent to their data being shared. Once they do, that information gets “uploaded to a highly secure information storage system.”

Only state and territory health authorities, as well as the app’s administrator, will be able to access that information, the website states. 

“It will be a criminal offence to use any app data in any other way. The COVIDSafe app cannot be used to enforce quarantine or isolation restrictions, or any other laws” it added.

As for how long the data exists, the government says, “the contact information stored in people’s mobiles is deleted on a 21-day rolling cycle.”

When a user deletes the app, their information will be erased once the pandemic is over, as will the data of everyone else who uses CovidSafe. If someone who deletes the app wants their information erased earlier, they will have to send in a request form.

Notably, all of the information provided on the official website is only outlined in a direction given by the Health Minister and has not been set in law.

The government is not set to vote on formal legislation until May, and some have expressed concerns about the app going forward without specific legal guidelines.

However, CovidSafe is already showing serious popularity. On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Twitter that more than two million people have downloaded the app.

While that is just under 10% of the population, the Australian government has said that about 40% of the country needs to download the app for it to be effective.

Morrison has also said that the more people who download CovidSafe, the faster economic restrictions will be lifted. The app’s rollout already comes as several states in Australia are slowly starting to ease restrictions after the country reported a daily infection growth rate of less than 1%.

Tracing Apps in Other Countries

Australia is not the only country using a contact tracing app, especially as more and more begin to open up.

According to reports, at least 29 countries are currently using mobile data for contact tracing.

In fact, Australia’s CovidSafe is based on the software used by Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which was one of the first Bluetooth tracing apps, and has also been modeled by countries like India.

Other countries have also used tracing techniques that are considered much more invasive, like South Korea and Israel, which have used methods that involve tracking peoples’ locations through phone networks without their consent.

Location tracking, specifically, has received criticism from privacy and civil liberty rights activists. Late on Sunday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot keep using the state security service to track the cellphones of coronavirus patients after this month unless the Israeli parliament passes legislation that says they can do so.

Notably, Bluetooth tracing programs are generally considered much more privacy-friendly, though with any tracking mechanism that has government oversight, there are of course privacy and civil liberty concerns.

Bluetooth tracing also poses another problem: a large majority of people have to use it for it to be effective. Only about one in five people in Singapore signed on to TraceTogether.

That proportion was even less in India, where 75 million of the 1.3 billion people in the country have downloaded their version of the app, according to reports.

In the case of Singapore, that is especially concerning for the effectiveness of the app, as one Reuters report explained.

“The modest numbers in a tech-savvy country where trust in government is high shows the challenges facing public health authorities and technology experts around the world who are looking to exit lockdowns and believe contact-tracing apps can play an important role in restarting economies,” the report said.

Trust in Government and U.S.

That also brings up another important point: trust in government.

The app in Australia has also had a fairly strong roll out because many people are happy with the government’s coronavirus response. In fact, Morrison’s approval rating is higher than that of any of the country’s leaders in more than a decade.

But in places where government trust is low, like the U.S., it is unclear if an app like that would ever even be rolled out, or if it would be effective at all.

Right now, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website says that “detailed guidance for health departments and potential contact tracers is forthcoming,” but it provides no other information.

Meanwhile, a number of states have taken it upon themselves to invest in tracing apps. To help those efforts, the CDC announced on Thursday that it’s going to send $631 million to state and local health departments to increase their capacity to do tracing and testing. Some, however, say that falls far short.

Meanwhile, tech companies are also jumping to fill the void. According to reports, Apple and Google are joining forces to develop a Bluetooth system that could be deployed at a national level.

Despite the lack of a coordinated federal effort, many experts say that this kind of technology is essential for reopening the economy safely, especially as many states and cities eye measures to open back up.

During an interview with Snapchat in mid-April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House’s coronavirus taskforce, said that a tracing app “makes sense” from “a purely public health standpoint.”

However, Fauci also noted that an app would create “sticky, sticky issues.”

“You know, you could look at somebody’s cellphone, and say, ‘You were next to these 25 people over the last 24 hours,’” he continued. “Boy, I’ve got to tell you, the civil liberties-type pushback on that would be considerable.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (Reuters)

International

Hurricane Ian Makes Landfall in Cuba as Florida Braces for Devastation

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When it hits the sunshine state, Ian is expected to be a category 3 hurricane.


Ian Lands in Cuba

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Cuba Tuesday morning as a major category 3 storm, battering the western parts of the country with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned that life-threatening storm surges, hurricane-force winds, flash floods, and mudslides are expected. Officials said that around 50,000 people have been evacuated as of Tuesday afternoon. 

According to reports, flooding has damaged houses and tobacco crops in the region, and widespread power outages have also been reported.

As dangerous conditions continue in Cuba, Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico and pass west of the Florida Keys later on Tuesday, becoming a category 4 before the end of the day.

Officials predict it will drop back to a category 3 before making landfall as a major hurricane in Florida, which it is expected to do Wednesday evening.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said that Ian is currently forecast to land “somewhere between Fort Meyers and Tampa.” She added that the storm is expected to slow down as it hits Flordia, extending the potential devastation.

Uncertain Path

Forecasts of Ian’s path, however, remain uncertain, leaving residents all over Florida scrambling to prepare for the storm.

Schools have closed down, airports have suspended operations, and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has activated the National Guard and taken steps to ensure power outages can be remedied, warning that many should anticipate losing power.

There are also numerous storm and surge watches and warnings in place across Florida and in parts of Georgia and South Carolina.  

Evacuation warnings have been implemented throughout many parts of Florida, and officials have said that around 2.5 million people were under some kind of evacuation order by Tuesday afternoon.

Mandatory evacuations have been put in place in several counties, largely focused on coastal and low-lying areas. Some of those evacuation orders have extended to parts of Tampa — Florida’s third-largest city.

Tampa has not been hit by a major hurricane in over a century — a fact that just further emphasizes the unusual path this storm is taking. 

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management has a tool to track evacuation zones, as well as more resources at floridadisaster.org. For those looking for shelter, the Red Cross has a system to find one nearby. 

Continued Threats

The current evacuations are being driven by a number of very serious threats posed by Hurricane Ian. According to the NHC, hurricane-force winds, tropical storm conditions, heavy rainfall, and flooding are expected throughout much of the region.

“Considerable” flooding is also expected in central Florida and predicted to extend into southern Georgia and coastal South Carolina.

One of the biggest threats this hurricane poses is storm surge flooding at the coast — which has been a driving factor in the evacuations.

“Life-threatening storm surge looks increasingly likely along much of the Florida west coast where a storm surge warning is in effect, with the highest risk from Fort Myers to the Tampa Bay region,” the NHC warned Tuesday.

As many experts have pointed out, these dangerous threats of storm surges and catastrophic flooding have been drastically exacerbated by climate change. Specifically, sea level rise driven by climate change makes surges and flooding more likely and more extreme.

According to Axios, a profound example can be found in St. Petersburg, Florida — which is expected to be impacted by Ian — and where sea levels have risen by nearly nine inches since 1947.

That, however, is not only the real-time impact of climate change that is evident from this storm. In addition to climate change being “linked to an increase in rainfall from tropical storms and hurricanes,” Axios also notes that Ian “has been rapidly intensifying over extremely warm sea surface temperatures in the Caribbean that are running above average for this time of year.”

“Climate change favors more instances of rapidly intensifying storms such as Hurricane Ian, due to the combination of warming seas and a warmer atmosphere that can carry additional amounts of water vapor,” the outlet added.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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International

Giorgia Meloni Claims Victory in Far-Right Shift for Italy

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Her party has neofascist roots, and she has praised Mussolini in the past.


An Election Without Precedent

Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party grabbed the largest share of votes in Italy’s national election by a wide margin, giving the post of prime minister to the first woman and most right-wing politician since Benito Mussolini.

She declared victory early Monday morning after exit polls showed her party overwhelmingly in the lead with at least 26% of the vote, making it the dominant faction in the right-wing coalition, which got 44%.

The other two parties in the alliance — Mateo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia — took 9% and 8% of the vote, respectively.

The center-left alliance only garnered 26% of the vote, with 63% of votes counted, according to the interior ministry.

Voter turnout dropped to a record low at only 63.91%, nine points below the rate in 2018, with turnout especially dismal in southern regions like Sicily.

Meloni is set to become prime minister in the coming weeks as a new government is formed, and the rest of Europe is bracing for what many see as a neofascist demagogue to take power in the continent’s third largest economy.

Speaking to media and supporters following the preliminary results, Meloni said it was “a night of pride for many and a night of redemption.” She promised to govern for all Italians and unite the country.

But her relatively extreme politics — opposed to immigration, the European Union, and what she calls “gender ideology” — unsettles many who fear she will roll back civil rights and form a Euroskeptic alliance with other far-right leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The Next Mussolini?

During the election, Meloni stressed that she is a conservative, not a fascist, but opponents point to her rhetoric, past statements, and party’s history as evidence to the contrary.

“Either you say yes or you say no,” she howled to Spain’s far-right Vox party earlier this year. “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby. Yes to sex identity, no to gender ideology. Yes to the culture of life, not the abysm of death. Yes to the university of the cross, no to the Islamist violence. Yes to secure borders, no to mass migration. Yes to the work of our citizens, no to big international finance. Yes to the sovereignty of peoples, no to the bureaucrats in Brussels. And yes to our civilization.”

Meloni co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012 as an alternative to the more mainstream right-wing parties. It has roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a neofascist party that sprouted in the wake of World War II to continue Mussolini’s legacy after his party was banned. The Movement’s symbol — a tricolor flame — remains on the Brothers of Italy’s Flag today, and Meloni has refused to remove it.

She joined the MSI’s youth branch in the 1990s and went on to lead it after the party was renamed the National Alliance.

“I believe that Mussolini was a good politician, which means that everything he did, he did for Italy,” Meloni said at the time.

For the first decade, Brothers of Italy struggled to win more than a single-digit percentage of the vote, and it only garnered 4% in the 2018 election.

But in 2021 and 2022, it distinguished itself as the only opposition party to the unity government that fell apart last July, causing its popularity to inflate.

But the party still wrestles with its fascistic roots; last week, it suspended a member who was running for parliament because a local newspaper revealed that he had made comments supporting Adolf Hitler.

In an August video, Meloni promised to impose a naval blockade in the Mediterranean to interdict Libyan refugees from crossing to Southern Europe on boats. She has also discussed pulling Italy out of the Eurozone or even the E.U. entirely, but she moderated her rhetoric toward Europe during the election.

Italy has received some 200 billion euros in European pandemic recovery funds, and it is set to receive more unless the Union punishes Meloni’s government for democratic backsliding.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Associated Press) (NPR)

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Iranian Protests Sparked by Death of Mahsa Amini Spread Internationally

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Anger initially directed at the police has now shifted to the Islamic regime itself, with Iranian-Americans protesting outside the U.N. Headquarters as their country’s president spoke inside.


Hijabs Go Up in Flames

The largest protest movement in recent years has gripped Iran since the so-called morality police allegedly beat 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for violating the dress code last week, leading to her later death.

Demonstrations spread from the capital Tehran to at least 80 other cities and towns, with videos on social media showing women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in defiance.

In response, the government has gradually extended a virtual internet blackout across the country, blocking access to What’s App and Instagram.

To prevent protests from spreading, Iran’s biggest telecom operator largely shut down mobile internet access again Thursday, Netblocks, a group that monitors internet access, said in a statement, describing the restrictions as the most severe since 2019.

Clashes between police and protestors have killed some, but death toll reports on Thursday were conflicted. The Associated Press tallied at least nine people dead, while Iran’s state television put the number at 17, and a human rights group estimated at least 31 deaths.

The violence began on Saturday, shortly after the news that Amini had died the day prior in the hospital where she was comatose for three days.

Previously, the morality police arrested her for violating Islamic law requiring women to cover their hair with a head scarf and wear long, loose-fitting clothing.

Multiple reports and eyewitness accounts claimed that officers beat her in the head with batons and banged her head against one of their vehicles, but authorities have denied harming her, saying she suffered a “sudden heart failure.” Her father told BBC that she was in good health and that he had not been allowed to view her autopsy report.

“My son was with her. Some witnesses told my son she was beaten in the van and in the police station,” he said.

Surveillance footage was released showing Amini collapsing inside the hospital after grabbing her head, seemingly in pain.

From Anti-Hijab to Anti-Regime

Although the protests began in reaction to Amini’s death and Iran’s repressive policing, they quickly flowered into a mass opposition movement against the Islamic regime as men joined ranks of demonstrators and chants of “Death to the dictator!” broke out.

The anger was directed at the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as President Ebrahim Raisi, who attended the United Nations General Assembly this week. Iranian-Americans rallied outside the U.N. Headquarters Wednesday to voice their discontent as Raisi addressed the assembly.

“The hijab is used as a weapon in Iran,” one woman told CBS in Los Angeles. “It is a weapon against the West, and women are used as pawns.”

“Let this be the George Flloyd moment of Iran,” she added.

There have also been demonstrations of solidarity in countries such as Lebanon, Germany, and Canada.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

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