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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

Russia Orders Social Media Sites To Block Calls for Navalny Protests

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  • Shortly after his arrest on Sunday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for protests to take place on Jan. 23 and was met with a wave of support online.
  • In response, the government ordered tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Russian-centric VK to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”
  • TikTok has already deleted 38% of posts with such calls while VK and YouTube have deleted 50%, and Instagram has removed 17%.

Navalny Calls for Protests

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent arrest earlier this week has set off a chain of events in the country.

Since his arrest, Navalny has called for protests to occur on Jan. 23. Now, Russian authorities are taking precautions and arresting his allies in an effort to slow down the momentum of the looming demonstrations. Among their many demands are that Navalny be released.

Throughout the week, thousands of posts shared by younger Russians have raged across social media asking that people partake in the protests. The reach of those posts, however, have been curtailed by the government.

Social media tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and the Russian-centric VK were ordered by the Russian government to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”

Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications watchdog, later stated, “Internet sites will be brought to administrative responsibility in connection with the dissemination of information prohibited by law and aimed at attracting minors to participate in unauthorized mass public events.”

“Participation in such events is in violation of the established procedure, including in a pandemic, and carries risks of harm to life and health,” it added.

Censorship Payoff Unknown

For many of the sites, which are often seen as a way to promote free speech in regimes that are far more restrictive, the order puts them in an awkward position. Still, many have already complied, at least to some extend.

According to Roskomnadzor, Tiktok has deleted 38% of videos calling for minors to attend the protests. VK and YouTube have both deleted 50% of similar posts, while Instagram has removed 17% of posts that violate the regulations.

It’s unclear to what extent this censorship will have on stopping Russians from attending tomorrow’s protests; however, some of the nation’s largest protests in modern history have been organized by Navalny.

See what others are saying: (Moscow Times) (Associated Press) (Reuters)

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International

Accusations Against Chinese Actress Shine Light on the Nation’s Surrogacy Laws

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  • Chinese actress Zheng Shuang is facing major backlash after her former partner, Zhang Heng, accused her of abandoning her two children born through U.S.-based surrogates.
  • Beyond public outcry and losing brand deals, Zheng is likely facing legal consequences after a Chinese government agency said that using a legal loophole to obtain a surrogate from abroad was “definitely not innocent.” 
  • Zheng denies the claims and hasn’t confirmed if the children are actually hers, although she’s listed as their mother on their birth certificates.
  • As for the children in question, Zhang has been taking care of them in the U.S.

American-Based Surrogacy Cause Controversy

Chinese social media users have launched into debates surrounding how the rich and elite circumvent domestic laws in order to obtain surrogate services.

The latest controversy is surrounding actress Zheng Shuang. Though she has never confirmed this publicly, Zheng allegedly went to the U.S. with her-now-ex Zhang Heng and had two children with the help of American surrogates. However, on Monday, Zhang accused Zheng of abandoning the children and leaving him to take care of them in the U.S. The couple reportedly broke up before the babies were born due to Zhang’s alleged infidelity.

According to the South China Morning Post, Zhang’s friend released a voice recording on the Chinese platform NetEase Entertainment. In it, Zhang and Zheng are allegedly having a discussion with their parents over what to do with the then-unborn children. Zheng’s father suggested that they abandon the children at the hospital, while Zheng reportedly expressed annoyance that they could not be aborted so late in pregnancy.

Legal Grey Zone Likely Won’t Help

Beyond public outcries, Zheng lost a recent brand deal with Prada that she signed just eight days before the accusations were made. Additionally, other brand partners, such as Aussie, have distanced themselves from the actress. She also faces multiple awards she has won being revoked as well as potential legal consequences.

Currently, surrogacy is illegal in China; however, the laws have a legal grey zone. Technically, providing surrogacy is what is illegal, but obtaining one from abroad is not explicitly mentioned, even if it goes against the spirit of the law.

The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party commented on the situation in a Weibo video post, saying that using this legal loophole to get a surrogacy was “definitely not innocent.” 

“Surrogacy is banned in China as it uses women’s uteruses as a tool and sells life as a commercial product.,” it continued. “As a Chinese citizen, the act of traveling to the US on a legal loophole is not abiding the law.” 

Following the post, companies like Blued, a gay dating app in China, took down sections of their apps that helped users set up services with surrogacy firms overseas.

Surrogacy is a controversial subject in China, with many actors and actresses obtaining them overseas, but many social media users across the country are against the practice. Officially, the government claims that it “overlooks life” and “tramples the bottom line [of human morality].

Zheng has denied claims that she abandoned any children, and has never confirmed whether or not she actually has any, although she is listed as the mother on the children’s birth certificates.

As for the children in question, even though Zheng’s father suggested abandoning them in the hospital, her ex has been taking care of them in the U.S.

See What Others Are Saying: (South China Morning Post) (Straits Times) (New York Times)

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American Influencer Kristen Gray To Be Deported From Bali

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  • In a viral Twitter thread, influencer Kristen Gray encouraged people to move to Bali like she did while promoting her eBook and other resources on how to do so amid COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Many criticized her for encouraging an influx of travelers during the pandemic. She also sparked conversations about gentrification and was slammed for falsely characterizing Indonesia as queer-friendly.
  • The local government promised to deport her Tuesday, arguing that selling her book and offering paid consultations on traveling to Bali violated the purpose of her visitor stay permit. They also say she was “spreading information that could unsettle the public.”
  • “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia,” Gray told reporters. “I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT.”

Kristen Gray Goes Viral

Officials in Indonesia said Tuesday that they will deport Kristen Gray, an American influencer who has caused international outrage in the last week.

Gray moved to Bali with her girlfriend in 2019 with plans to stay for six months. In reality, the couple ended up staying much longer because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in a viral Twitter thread, Gray shared how positive their experience has been.

Gray pointed to several benefits of moving to Bali in her posts, like its safety, low cost of living, luxury lifestyle, as well as its queer-friendly and Black communities.

She also encouraged others to make the same move and promoted their $30 eBook “Our Bali Life Is Yours” for tips on how to do it. “We include direct links to our visa agents and how to go about getting to Indonesia during COVID,” she even wrote in one post.

Backlash

The thread sparked outrage for encouraging an influx of travelers to a country that has closed its borders over the worsening pandemic. On top of that, it sparked conversations about the gentrification of neighborhoods there.

Bali is a major tourist destination for Americans, Europeans, and Australians in particular, and like areas all over the world, it has suffered from the loss in visitors this year.

However, many online noted that locals have been steadily priced out of certain areas of the island as foreigners open businesses to cater to tourists. Others argue that poorly regulated development is also destroying industries that Balinese people have historically relied on.

Aside from those criticisms, many people also took issue with Gray characterizing Bali as a queer-friendly when the reality for locals is far different.

“It well may be the case for you. However, please recognize that it is because a) you’re a foreigner and b) you have economic leverage since the Indonesian local community is financially dependent on keeping you happy so they don’t mess with you,” a user named Kai Mata said in a viral TikTok.

“Please realize for the rest of us Indonesians on the island, this is not a queer-friendly place. Our gay communities are often shut down and raided by authorities and Indonesia at large has tried to mandate conversion therapy for us the LGBTQ+ Community.

Government Responds

The local government responded to the public outrage over Gray’s thread Tuesday. In a statement, it said selling her book and also offering paid consultations on traveling to Bali violated the purpose of her visitor stay permit, which was valid until January 24.

Gray was also accused of “spreading information that could unsettle the public” by saying Bali is queer-friendly and suggesting foreigners travel there during the pandemic.

According to Reuters, she was being held at an immigration detention facility Tuesday and was to be deported as soon as a flight was available.

In a brief statement to the Balinese press, Gray defended herself. “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia. I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT,” she explained.

Many of her fans believe her and also argue that she is seeing this level of criticism because she is a Black woman.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Reuters) (Vulture)

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