With Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirming that Home Quarantine will be used to allow expats to return to Australia, South Australia’s home quarantine trial has created an international controversy, with critics labelling the use of facial recognition and geo-location technology the stuff of Orwellian science fiction.
The state is trialling a check-in app that allows health authorities to monitor the whereabouts of returning travellers who have opted to do their 14-day quarantine at home, rather than in hotels.
Users of the Home Quarantine SA (HQSA) app are sent a message on a randomised schedule and have 15 minutes to respond by submitting a facial scan integrated to a phone’s existing geo-location technology – or receive a $1,000 spot fine.
HQSA is almost identical to Western Australia’s G2G Now app, which was introduced with little fanfare in December 2020. It uses a similar check-in system, with a 5-minute window, but with more leniency if you are not near the phone when the alert arrives.
G2G Now was developed by Perth based firm GenVis, which was awarded a $4.5 million contract with WA Police in September 2020 to develop a state-wide QR code check in system.
In response to mounting concerns, the SA government began developing its own app. The pending trial was mentioned very briefly by Morrison in a press conference after a National Cabinet meeting on 9 July.
The 50 person ‘opt-in’ trial started on 23 August for South Australian residents returning from NSW and Victoria. The app is touted as a safe, sustainable and cost-effective alternative to hotel quarantine, reducing the reliance on police officers to knock on doors to monitor compliance.
There had been little mention of the trial in Australian media until Conor Friedersdorf, a California-based writer at The Atlantic, published a hyperbolic article on 2 September, describing the “app as Orwellian as any in the free world.” He goes on to describe Australia as a “hermit continent” verging on a “police state”.
There has been a long push to expand the use of home quarantine, with some travellers even offering to wear ankle bracelets rather than spend two weeks in a hotel room.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists hotel quarantine is “99.99-percent effective,” the system is responsible for more than two dozen transmissions, presumed to spread through the air, including in corridors and central ventilation.
South Australia also uses facial recognition technology to identify people who have been banned from entering gambling venues.