Mark Dreyfus MP

Member for Isaacs
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Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information ) Bill 2020 - Mark Dreyfus QC MP

12 May 2020

Privacy Amendment(Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020


Privacy Amendment(Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020

Second Reading

12 MAY 2020

Since the beginning of this public health crisis, Labors focus has been on saving lives and saving jobs.

As the Leader of the Opposition has said on many occasions Labor is looking for outcomes; not arguments.

That is the spirit in which we have approached this bill and the Governments contact tracing app more generally.

My colleagues and I believe that a contact tracing app can be a valuable tool for protecting Australians from Coronavirus. But to be a valuable tool, the app has to work and Australians must have complete confidence that their privacy is protected and that the data collected by the app will never be used for any purpose other than contact tracing during the current health crisis.

Without that confidence, millions of Australians will not download the app and its value as a public health tool will be severely compromised even if it works effectively in a technical sense.

At the outset, the Prime Minister said that at least 40% of the Australian population needed to download the app for it to be an effective tool. That means about 10 million Australians.

The Government is well short of that figure at the moment I understand that about 5.5 million Australians have downloaded the COVIDSafe app so far. But I hope, and my colleagues hope, that this bill and Labors support for it will help to build the public confidence that is needed to persuade many millions more to download it.

One of the reasons why I support the passage of this bill is the very positive engagement that I have had with the Attorney-General over the last week.

Following the release of the draft legislation last Monday evening, I approached the Attorney-General with a number of suggestions for improving the bill and boosting public confidence. To his credit, the Attorney-General considered in good faith all of the concerns I raised with him and he has sought to address most of them in the version of the bill that is now before the House.

Those amendments have improved the bill in a variety of ways. For example:

  • there is now greater clarity about what data is protected by the strict privacy safeguards contained in the bill;
  • the bill now provides for greater oversight of the COVIDSafe app and the handling of COVIDSafe data by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner;
  • the bill now makes it clear that no intelligence agency or law enforcement agency can be given a role in administering the COVIDSafe data store;
  • where it is unlikely to prejudice a law enforcement investigation, the bill now allows the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to continue an investigation even where the investigation overlaps with an investigation by law enforcement; and
  • the bill now includes a number of public reporting requirements, so that the Australian people can be kept informed about the operation and effectiveness of the app and the level of compliance with the privacy safeguards contained in the bill.

This is now a stronger and better piece of legislation as a result of constructive engagement between Labor and the Government. For that, I would like to give particular credit, and extend my thanks, to the Attorney-General and his office.

I understand that a number of my colleagues will speak about some of the suggestions by Labor that were not adopted by the Government. While each of those concerns is important, they must be kept in perspective particularly when it comes to the issue of privacy.

In some respects, this bill would introduce the strongest privacy safeguards that have ever been put in place by any Australian parliament. That is despite the fact that the COVIDSafe app is voluntary and the data that it collects is, relative to other personal information that is routinely collected by governments and corporations, relatively innocuous.

This bill takes privacy seriously.

I would also like to assure Australians that this is not a case of set and forget Labor will keep an eye on how the measures in the bill are being implemented to ensure that they are effective and working as intended. I expect the Attorney-General will be doing the same.

Necessarily, this bill had to be drafted quickly and it has not gone through the usual parliamentary committee processes of review. As such, it hasn't received the same scrutiny as typical. I welcome the announcement by the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 that it intends to oversee the COVIDSafe act and this legislation to review the rollout of the app.

Another issue that I raised with the Attorney-General during discussion about this bill relates to the funding of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. In short, I do not think the evidence of the Attorney-Generals Department at last Wednesdays COVID-19 Senate Select Committee hearing that the Commissioner requires no additional resources to fulfil her new oversight responsibilities is credible. In fact, it is incredible.

You do not have to take my word for it. Just last October, the Information Commissioner told Senate Estimates that her office is already under-resourced.

The Attorney-General has advised me that his department is engaging with the Commissioner to ensure that she has the necessary resources to perform the important oversight functions provided for in this bill. While I welcome that engagement and look forward to receiving an update over the coming days or weeks, there is no question in my mind that additional funding is urgently required. The only question is how much.

It is also important to remember that, for years, the Government has refused to appoint a standalone Information Commissioner, a standalone Freedom of Information Commissioner or a standalone Privacy Commissioner. Instead, one person currently occupies all three of these important and demanding roles. As I have said repeatedly, this is unacceptable.

In light of the new responsibilities that this bill would confer on the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, now, more than ever, the Government needs to appoint a standalone, dedicated Privacy Commissioner.

The appointment of a full-time and properly resourced Privacy Commissioner, rather than a commissioner forced to split her time between three different and demanding roles, would make a further valuable contribution to building public confidence in the COVIDSafe app.

It should not take a public health crisis for the Government to show that it takes seriously the privacy of Australians.

In conclusion, let me be as clear as I can, I have downloaded the Governments contact tracing app and I want other Australians to download the app too.

But I understand, and my Labor colleagues understand, that many millions of Australians have legitimate concerns about downloading the app. Those legitimate concerns should not be derided or minimised. Those concerns must be taken seriously and, to the extent possible, addressed.

I believe this bill goes a long way to addressing a number of those concerns. But it does not address every concern and there are many issues that cannot be addressed by legislation alone.

Ultimately, those concerns can only be addressed by the Government.

If we are to come anywhere near the Prime Ministers target of at least 10 million Australians downloading the app, perhaps the most important thing that the Government can do now is to be open and transparent with the Australian people.

To gain the trust of Australians, the Morrison Government must trust Australians.

Publishing the source code for the app was a good start but it was only a start. The Government must be as transparent as possible about everything to do with the COVIDSafe app, whether it be providing additional technical information in relation to the app or being upfront about how the app is working in practice.

The Government should be transparent about other matters too. For example, the Government should explain why it awarded the COVIDSafe data storage to Amazon Web Services instead of an Australian cloud service provider. And it should provide assurances concrete assurances to the Australian people that the inexplicable decision to award this contract to Amazon does not mean that the data collected by the COVIDSafe app could or will be accessed by anyone outside Australia.

The Government should also provide the Australian people, including older and culturally and linguistically diverse Australians and Australians with disabilities, with clear, easy to understand and accurate information about the app.

And finally, and most obviously, Australians will have no reason to download or keep using the app if the technology does not work or if the technology is not secure. For that reason, the Government must urgently address the technical and security concerns that have been raised about the app by technology experts and members of the public.

I would like to once again thank the Attorney-General for the constructive way in which he has engaged with Labor when it comes to this bill, and I commend the bill to the House.