The lecturer at the centre of the ANU academic freedom controversy has spoken out, saying she was surprised and “disappointed” she was removed as moderator of a panel discussion on COVIDSafe and calling for greater transparency around government tech projects.
ANU lecturer Dr Priya Dev, who also holds a PhD in mathematics from the university, had been set to moderate the discussion, featuring a representative from Boston Consulting Group and a Clayton Utz special counsel, in July.
But after an opinion piece Dr Dev had written calling for the federal government to adopt the Google and Apple framework for contact tracing was circulated to the panellists, she was removed as moderator.
The ANU has admitted that this happened after the BCG employee raised concerns with Dr Dev’s potential questions, but denied it was pressured by the global consultancy. BCG worked closely with the federal government on the development of the app and was paid nearly $1 million for this work.
The decision to replace Dr Dev as moderator “could have impacted [her] academic freedom”, the ANU admitted.
Scrutiny has continued about this decision, with a Freedom of Information request for communication leading to the removal of Dr Dev seeing the release of just two documents.
The first appears to show Dr Dev in an email raising concerns on whether she is the “right person” to moderate the panel, and if it’s better to appoint someone to “keep things light”. The Australian Financial Review, which lodged the FOI, appealed this release, and the ANU admitted it had identified “further material” that is yet to be released.
Speaking on the record for the first time, Dr Dev said those brief documents don’t accurately portray the series of events that led to her being removed from the panel, and that after the email was sent she was reassured that she was the right person to moderate it.
“I certainly wanted to take part in the public panel discussing the purpose and design of the COVIDSafe app. I was disappointed because I was looking forward to discussing the purpose and design of the app with a person involved in the project,” Dr Dev told InnovationAus.
The ANU also did not release a recording of the panel after the BCG panellist declined to give permission. The panel session recording was eventually released publicly after another FOI request.
“I was surprised that one panellist raised the issue of client confidentiality because COVIDSafe should be discussed in an open forum and a university panel is the place to have a frank and open discussion of ideas on their merits. I still wonder what questions the panellist was concerned I would ask,” Dr Dev said.
It’s important for proper transparency and scrutiny to be applied to government tech projects such as COVIDSafe, and this becomes difficult when they are led by private firms, as is becoming increasingly common, Dr Dev said.
“The incident may shine some light on why large government tech projects run by large corporations with little public accountability so often end in ‘tech wrecks’. If the design and purpose of these large IT systems aren’t open to debate then what checks are in place to ensure the right things are being built, or that they are being built right?” she said.
“In this case they were trying to solve the right problem, but in the wrong way. Instead of learning from evidence and keeping an open mind, they became fixated on COVIDSafe’s design rather than the problem it solves.
“This incident further highlights that public money is being spent on multinational corporations who have little accountability to the Australian people.”
There needs to be more transparency around the functioning of COVIDSafe and whether it is achieving its aims in its current form or if it needs to be adapted, she said.
“COVIDSafe is not a counter-terrorism tool, its purpose is to help with the rapid control of COVID-19 outbreaks. So, what do Australian citizens have to gain from large US corporations working in the shadows with our government?” Dr Dev said.
“Consultants are being muzzled through client confidentiality. How is the public good being served by confidentiality and secrecy around how COVIDSafe has been designed? What is being kept from the Australian people? Why isn’t the server-side source code being made available for public inspection?
“Why isn’t Australia trialling the privacy-centric solution developed by smartphone manufacturers Google and Apple? Would senior public servants and elected officials participate in an open, outcomes-focused discussion with experts about switching to the Google-Apple solution?”