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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

200 Children Seeking Asylum in the U.K. Are Missing 

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The missing include at least 13 children under the age of 16. 


Children Missing From Hotels

There are 200 asylum-seeking children missing from government care in the United Kingdom according to the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office.

When children are seeking asylum in the U.K. alone or separated from their parents, the government puts them up in hotel rooms for temporary accommodation. They have done so since 2021 and have temporarily accommodated 4,600 children in that time. However, Simon Murray, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office, said that 200 of the children placed in those hotels are missing, including at least 13 who are under the age of 16.

In response to this information, a collection of more than 100 charities sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the end of the procedure of placing kids in hotels over safety concerns. The letter says that these children are at risk of trafficking and exploitation by staying in these hotels alone.

Other officials have echoed these concerns, claiming these hotels are targets for organized crime where people use these vulnerable children for labor or trafficking.

Parliament Calls Incident “Horrific”

Murray told the House of Lords on Monday that despite the media reports, his department does not know of any kidnapping cases, though they are investigating. He went on to say there are many reasons why children go missing. 

However, lawmakers were not appeased by Murray’s assurances. In a later debate, one member of Parliament called the missing cases “horrific” and another said that it was “putting children at risk.”  The children’s commissioner for England also reportedly chimed in asking for, quote “assurances on the steps being taken to safeguard the children.” 

Murray went on to say that the use of hotels for asylum-seeking children will hopefully be phased out as soon as possible but did not give a timeline. 

The nonprofit Refugee Council called on the government in a tweet to spare no expense in the location of these missing kids.

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

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100,000 U.K. Nurses Launch Biggest Strike in NHS History

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Opposition leader Keir Starmer called the strike “a badge of shame on this government.”


The NHS Grinds to a Halt

Some 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the United Kingdom’s largest nursing union, launched a historic 12-hour strike Thursday after the government refused to negotiate on higher pay.

The work stoppage, which spans England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is only the second in the RCN’s 106-year history and the largest the NHS has ever seen. It marks the breaking point for many underpaid nurses and the culmination of a years-long decline in the NHS’s quality of care, put under increasing stress by severe staffing shortages.

Although most NHS staff in England and Wales received a pay rise of around £1,400 this year, worth about 4% on average for nurses, they say it has not kept up with inflation as Britain plunges deeper into a cost-of-living crisis.

When inflation is accounted for, nurses’ pay dropped 1.2% every year from 2010 to 2017, according to the Health Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of patients waiting for care has reached a record 7.2 million in England, or over one in eight residents, more than double what it was seven years ago.

In July, the cross-party Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee estimated the staffing shortfall could be as high as 50,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors, what one MP called the “greatest workforce crisis in history.”

Many nurses argue that boosting pay will help hospitals recruit more staff.

The RCN demanded a pay raise 5% above the retail rate of inflation, which amounts to a 19% increase, but both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the government’s health secretary have claimed that’s not affordable.

During Thursday’s strike, partial staffing continued to remain open for urgent care such as chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, and children’s accident and neonatal units.

Sunak and Starmer Brawl in Parliament

Labor leader Keir Starmer grilled Sunak during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on the upcoming strike.

“Tomorrow will be the first-ever nationwide nurse’s strike,” he said. “All the Prime Minister has to do to stop that is to open the door and discuss pay with them. If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?”

“We have consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes that there are,” Sunak replied. “Last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a three-percent pay rise.”

Starmer fired back: “Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this government. Instead of showing leadership, he’s playing games with people’s health.”

Sunak called Starmer’s demand that he reopen negotiations with the RCN “just simply a political formula for avoiding taking a position on this issue.”

“If he thinks the strikes are wrong, he should say so,” Sunak said. “If he thinks it’s right that pay demands of nineteen percent are met, then he should say so. What’s weak, Mr. Speaker, is he’s not strong enough to stand up to the union.”

While Starmer has called on Sunak to negotiate with the RCN, he has not explicitly backed the 19% pay raise himself.

Unless the government returns to the bargaining table, the RCN plans to launch a second round of strikes on Dec. 20 to be followed by ambulance strikes that Wednesday and the next.

If the government still refuses to budge, the union said in a statement that nurses will strike for longer periods in more places starting in January, disrupting more health services.

Other industries are also set to see work stoppages this month, including workers on railways, buses, highways, and borders, as well as teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers, and paramedics.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (The Guardian)

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Fortnite Developer Sued By Parents for Making the Game as “Addictive as Possible”

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One child mentioned in the lawsuit played over 7,700 rounds of Fortnite in two years.


Epic Games Sued 

A Quebec City judge recently approved a 2019 class-action lawsuit accusing Fortnite developer Epic Games of deliberately making Fortnite addictive.

The parents who brought forward the lawsuit claim their children have become so obsessed with the game that in some cases, they’ve stopped eating, showering, or socializing. The lawsuit claims that these kids have played thousands of games since Fortnite’s release in 2017. In one example, a teenager played over 7,700 games in less than two years. 

If the lawsuit succeeds, players addicted to Fortnite living in Quebec since September 2017 could receive compensation. The plaintiff’s attorney, Philippe Caron, reports that over 200 parents outside the lawsuit have reached out to him, saying their child’s well-being has diminished since downloading Fortnite. He told The Washington Post that they are very confident about their case. 

Epic Games Responds

“We plan to fight this in court,” Natalie Munoz, a spokesperson for Epic Games said to The Post, “We believe the evidence will show that this case is meritless.” 

Munoz also said that Fortnite does allow parents to supervise their child’s playtime and require permission for purchases.

The parents involved in the lawsuit are claiming that they were not aware of the dangers playing Fortnite could pose for their children. 

“If she had been informed by the defendants of the risks and dangers associated with the use of FORTNITE,” the lawsuit says of one guardian. “She would have categorically refused to allow the game to be downloaded.” 

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Washington Post) (Deadline

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