The nondigital overhead

Like elsewhere in Australia, Tasmania requires that you check in whenever you visit a business premises so that contact tracing can occur in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. I think this is a good idea. What isn’t well appreciated is that it’s generally easy to do this without using a QR code and a smartphone. Visitors to a venue are not required to have a smartphone and in my experience the alternative is always a paper form. If it’s not presented in an obvious location staff will readily provide it when asked. Filling it in takes about as long as using the app and you can even bring your own pen if you prefer.

If you happen to enjoy staying out of digital databases where possible you can further assume that most small businesses are not going to bother typing in their check-in sheets. They will probably refer to it only in the event of an outbreak that concerns their location. The recommendation is that businesses use their own devices to check people in. Since this is such a labour-intensive activity it’s unsurprising that I’ve never seen this done, and they instead go straight to a paper form.

I want to emphasise that doing this is approximately as good as using the app. You can still be contacted if you were at an exposure site and in the case that you’re the COVID-19 patient, you need only be able to tell contact tracers exactly where you were and then it’s completely equivalent. All with less tech-dependency and surveillance. For what it’s worth, I currently take the Tasmanian Health Department at their word that they are using this data exclusively for COVID-19 contact tracing. The problem is that it sets a precedent for using similar apps for less urgent purposes in the future, without necessarily having the same legal safeguards.

If this concept makes you uncomfortable—and it should—dissenters have an unusual amount of power at this moment. Governments in Australia cannot reasonably expect every citizen to have a smartphone which is controlled by Apple or Google, the venues from which you can acquire the apps. Some citizens may not have mobile phones at all; some will have dumbphones or feature phones; some will have something weird like a Linux smartphone that can’t install the requisite app. Governments cannot reasonably require that you have one of these phones, and they’re certainly not going to issue you one for free, so manual or non-digital alternatives continue to exist.

If you are a smartphone owner, pretend not to have one. Better yet, don’t have one. Check in manually, so businesses realise that they will lose custom if they have to turn non-smartphone users away. When a federal agency asks you to use myGovID, ask how you can access their services without that app. And when vaccine passports and the like show up in Australia, ask how you can get that in a regular card rather than an app. Not only does this create a headwind that will stymie Peter Dutton’s digital panopticon projects—it makes sure we don’t leave behind fellow Australians who can’t use or can’t afford a smartphone, who deserve to be able to participate in our society just the same as anybody else.