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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

Leaked Documents and Photos Give Unprecedented Glimpse Inside Xinjiang’s Detention Camps

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The so-called vocational schools, which China claims Uyghurs enter willingly as students, oversee their detainees with watchtowers armed with machine guns and sniper rifles, as well as guards instructed to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape.


Detained for Growing a Beard

The BBC and a consortium of investigative journalists have authenticated and published a massive trove of leaked documents and photographs exposing the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in unprecedented detail.

According to the outlet, an anonymous source hacked several police computer servers in the northwestern Xinjiang province, then sent what has been dubbed the Xinjiang police files to the scholar Dr. Adrian Zenz, who gave them to reporters.

Among the files are more than 5,000 police photographs of Uyghurs taken between January and July 2018, with accompanying data indicating at least 2,884 of them were detained.

Some of the photos show guards standing nearby with batons.

The youngest Uyghur photographed was 15 at the time of their detention, and the oldest was 73.

One document is a list titled “Relatives of the Detained,” which contains thousands of people placed under suspicion for guilt by association with certain family members. It includes a woman whose son authorities claimed had “strong religious leanings” because he didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He was jailed for ten years on terrorism charges.

The files also include 452 spreadsheets with information on more than a quarter of a million Uyghurs, some of whom were detained retroactively for offenses committed years or even decades ago.

One man was jailed for ten years in 2017 because he “studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother” for a few days in 2010.

Authorities targeted hundreds more for their mobile phone use, like listening to “illegal lectures” or downloading encrypted apps. Others were punished for not using their phones enough, with “phone has run out of credit” listed as evidence they were trying to evade digital surveillance.

One man’s offense was “growing a beard under the influence of religious extremism.”

The Most Militarized Schools in the World

The files include documents outlining conditions inside Xinjiang’s detention camps, or so-called “Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers.”

Armed guards occupy every part of the facilities, with machine guns and sniper rifles stationed on watchtowers. Police protocols instruct guards to shoot to kill any so-called “students” trying to escape if they fail to stop after a warning shot.

Any apprehended escapees are to be taken away for interrogation while camp management focuses on “stabilizing other students’ thoughts and emotions.”

The BBC used the documents to reconstruct one of the camps, which data shows holds over 3,700 detainees guarded by 366 police officers who oversee them during lessons.

If a “student” must be transferred to another facility, the protocols say, police should blindfold them, handcuff them and shackle their feet.

Dr. Zenz published a peer-reviewed paper on the Xinjiang police files, in which he found that more than 12% of Uyghur adults were detained over 2017 and 2018.

“Scholars have argued that political paranoia is a common feature of atrocity crimes,” he wrote. “Here, it is suggested that the pre-emptive internment of large numbers of ordinary citizens can be explained as a devolution into political paranoia that promotes exaggerated threat perceptions.”

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

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International

Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China

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Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.


Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion

During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.

A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”

“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.

Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.

Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.

The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.

Biden Sparks Controversy

The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.

“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.

Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.

Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.

“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”

“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”

“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”

Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.

The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)

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Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

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

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