Australian ministers seek to calm data privacy fears over corona tracing app

By on 22/04/2020
Critics have urged the Australian government to rethink the way it proposes to notify app users about potential contacts with the virus. (Photo by Engin Akyurt via Pixabay).

Australia’s government services minister Stuart Robert has moved to address data privacy concerns over the plan to introduce a corona tracking app, saying on Monday that all data will remain “securely encrypted” on people’s phones unless they test positive for COVID-19 ­– in which case state health authorities will access it to trace others who may have become infected. He insisted that data on people’s movements will not be available to law enforcement agencies, and said the app’s source code will be published to ensure transparency. 

Making the case for the app, the minister said it will enable health agencies to cut the time required for contact tracing “from days to minutes” – supporting the easing of lockdown restrictions. “It will allow us to get back to the footy quicker. It will allow us to get back to work quicker. It will allow us to resume the economic activity of the nation quicker. And we need to do this for the country,” Robert told ABC News on Monday.

The proposed app, which is expected to be ready for public use within the next two weeks, is based on the TraceTogether app used in Singapore since 20 March. Using Bluetooth, it will record when people who have downloaded the app are within 1.5m of another user for more than 15 minutes. Users will be asked to provide their name, age range, postcode and phone number.

Privacy and mandation fears

Robert was attempting to calm concerns raised by government MPs – including former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, who said he personally would not download the app – along with data privacy experts and campaign groups such as the Human Rights Law Centre. Critics have urged the Australian government to formally make the data collected by the app exempt from use by law enforcement, and to rethink the way it proposes to notify users about potential contacts with the virus.

According to The Guardian, Vanessa Teague, chief executive of Thinking Cybersecurity and a professor at the Australian National University, said: “The minister is saying it won’t track your location and that the source code will be openly available, which are both good things that I’m very strongly in favour of, but it’s one thing to say ‘we’re going to give you that information’ and it’s another thing to give it to us.”

She said the model proposed by the government – whereby officials will be authorised to de-crypt an app user’s information if they have been infected with COVID-19 – “inevitably means the authorities are getting a complete list of your contacts”.

She and others argue the government should instead use a “decentralised” version of the app. Under this model, instead of health authorities gaining access to a person’s encrypted data if they test positive, the app would simply notify people if they are a close contact of someone who has tested positive.

Meanwhile, the government appears to have given ground on whether adoption of the app should be mandatory. Prime minister Scott Morrison initially declined to rule out making the app compulsory, but has since said that it will be voluntary. “I will be calling on Australians to do it, frankly, as a matter of national service,” Morrison told Triple M radio. “This would be something they might not normally do in an ordinary time, but this is not an ordinary time. If you download this app, you’ll be helping to save someone’s life.” The app’s effectiveness depends on the proportion of citizens using it, and the government says it would like to see 40% of the population adopting it.

As well as Singapore, contact tracing apps are being used in a number of countries around the world including India and South Korea.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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