Member for Isaacs

Strong Safeguards Essential For Contact Tracing App

24 April 2020

Technology will play an important role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and Labor welcomes the fact that the Morrison Government is working on a contact tracing app





Technology will play an important role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and Labor welcomes the fact that the Morrison Government is working on a contact tracing app.

Such an app could help health authorities contain the spread of the virus by ensuring that people who have been in close contact with infected individuals can be identified quickly and then notified, tested and, if necessary, quarantined. This could complement the existing manual process of contact tracing and, hopefully, help the Government to ease some of the social restrictions that are currently in place.

However, a contact tracing app will only be effective if the technology works and it is widely used in the community. The Morrison Government has said that at least 40% of Australians will have to download the app for it to make a significant contribution.

For starters, the Government will have to persuade Australians that the technology is effective. If people are not confident that the app will work as intended, they will have no reason to download it.

In order to build confidence in the technology, we urge the Government to be as transparent as possible about the design of its app so that it can be subjected to rigorous assessment by independent technology experts.

But even if the technology works perfectly in recording peoples contacts, people will be understandably concerned about the privacy implications of what the Government is proposing.

Some of the privacy concerns about this technology can be addressed through the design of the app itself. For example, a key design feature of most contact tracing apps including, reportedly, the app being developed by the Australian Government is the use of Bluetooth technology instead of location data. By using Bluetooth, the app can record who a person has met without tracking the persons location.

The Morrison Government is basing its design on the TraceTogether app which was developed by the Government of Singapore. Unlike a number of other apps that are in development, users of the TraceTogether app are required to provide authorities with personal information which is held on a centralised server. A user of the Australian version of the app will reportedly be asked to provide his or her name, age range, postcode and phone number.

We expect there are good reasons why this approach has been adopted. But it is incumbent on the Government to explain why its app design is preferable to the dozens of different contact tracing apps and systems being developed by technology companies, universities and health authorities around the world.

Just as importantly as designing an app with privacy protections baked in, appropriate legislated safeguards must also be in place.

In short, Australians must have confidence that the information they provide to authorities will only be used for the purpose of contact tracing, that the information will only be accessible to health officials who need to access it for that limited purpose and that all of the information collected by authorities will be deleted when this crisis is over.

None of these matters should be left to the discretion of authorities and, given the inadequacies of existing privacy legislation (both at the federal and state level), new legislation is likely to be required to provide these safeguards. Any such legislation should also include strong sanctions against the misuse of peoples personal information.

The Government must also urgently explain why the data collected from Australian app users will reportedly be stored on servers hosted by Amazon a foreign company. On the face of it, the inexplicable decision to award the storage contract to a US company (overlooking Australian companies already security cleared for just such a role) could mean that the personal information of Australian app users could be accessed by US law enforcement agencies. If this concern is not addressed, it is likely to be a serious impediment to building public confidence in the app.

Legislation is also likely to be necessary in order to ensure that the use of the app is and remains voluntary, legally and practically. This is because, while the Government has made it clear that the app will not be compulsory by law, it is possible that the app could become compulsory in effect (such as by private businesses requiring people to use the app as a condition of entering a premises).

Reportedly, the Government is looking at ways of addressing all of these concerns, including through new legislation. This is welcome.

From the outset, Labor has taken a constructive approach to the COVID-19 crisis. At all times, we have been looking for outcomes and not arguments.

Our approach to the proposed contact tracing app will be no different. We want the Government to get this right. And, given the need to build public confidence in order for this measure to be effective, it is important that the Government get this right from the outset.

We urge the Government to provide the Australian people with as much detail as possible about its proposal, including information about the design of the app and any related privacy impact assessments, so that the proposal can be properly scrutinised and debated and appropriate safeguards put in place before it is rolled out.

This article was first published by The Australian on Friday, 24 April 2020.