Personal autonomy is each individual’s right to self-determination. This right recently went viral when a shopper at a Melbourne hardware store refused to wear a mask and was subsequently denied entry.

Personal autonomy reaches its limits when the excise of one individual’s autonomy threatens the safety of another.

If we believe that we each share a duty of care to helping protect the health of the wider community, then the same principal applies in the debate over some privacy concerns relating to new and emerging technologies. Allowing our governments access to personal mobile phone data is one example.

Before COVID-19, the argument in favour of such access was framed in the interests of public safety. It was a vital tool that would help police and security authorities catch crooks and foil potential terrorist attacks.

Now, accessing personal mobile data should be understood in the context of helping our public health authorities flatten the COVID-19 curve and protect the wider community. South Korea had this debate when the MERS outbreak threatened its citizens back in 2015.

At that time the South Korean government recognised how accessing personal mobile phone data could help contact tracing people who may have been exposed to MERS. Regulation soon followed, allowing health authorities to access personal information only in the event of public emergencies such as pandemics.

In 2020, the South Korean government exercised this right and the results are there for all to see. They have flattened one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, quickly and efficiently, and without having to resort to the strict lockdowns seen in many other countries, including Australia.

Now South Korean companies are installing facial recognition and blockchain technologies across workplaces and cafeterias to create contactless customer experiences to protect staff and minimise the spread of COVID-19.

The move towards contactless offices, public transport and public buildings here in Australia has begun. Contactless experiences offer the chance to dramatically reduce shared contacts between people in the community. What was once a discussion about speed and efficiency is now a public health imperative. The benefits this technology offers society have entered a completely new environment.

If this environment is the ‘new normal’ we should expect greater public and private investment in an increasing array of digital transformation technologies in the month and years ahead. For this to happen, renewed trust in our governments and public institutions is needed.

Given the recent performance of our public systems and processes, I believe that trust is returning. A cursory look at how some of our closest allies are faring in the pandemic should give us confidence in our governments and public institutions.

We are fortunate, our public officials had been planning responses to a global pandemic for over a decade, testing our systems and processes, trialling policy options, and honing how we deploy the necessary responses across the nation.

Now, Australians are being reminded daily of the benefits of past investments in state and federal public services and administrations. For example, if we had not invested in our public and private digital telecommunications networks and ICT over the past decade, most Australians would today be reliant on Job Keeper or other income support.

That investment must continue through, and beyond, this crisis. Our economic recovery will depend on transformational change to how we deliver safety and security to our communities and national assets, including our supply chains and critical manufacturing, our sovereign ICT infrastructure and data, our internal security and border protection.

In this new environment, continued and deepening collaboration with trusted partners who share our values will become more important.

In the Japan-Australia Leaders’ virtual meeting held on 10 July, Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Morrison discussed accelerating digital transformation and ICT innovation in response to COVID-19. This included strengthening bilateral cooperation on cyber security, critical technology and communications such as 5G.

In addition to Japan, since December 2019 our Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers have participated in joint meetings with leaders and ministers of regional partners, including India, Republic of Korea, and Singapore. In each meeting, commitments were made to continue deepening bilateral collaboration in areas of defence, security and technology development.

These nations are all democracies, they share our values and are committed to a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific region. Importantly, they also possess some of the most technologically savvy minds and companies on the planet.

It will be our relationships with these and other capable partners, working closely with Australian governments and companies, that will be central to Australia delivering the digital transformation and investment the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating.

With continued preparation and even a bit of luck we will be well positioned to usher in new technological developments that will position Australia strongly well into the future.

 

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