Digital groups call for COVID app transparency

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government is yet to respond to a series of transparency and data security issues surrounding its official COVID-19 information app that have been raised by a number of legal and civil liberties organisations.

The Human Rights Law Centre, along with Digital Rights Watch, Access Now and the Centre for Responsible Technologies, wrote to Health Minister Greg Hunt this month with a series of questions about the app.

While it’s understood the government has not responded to this letter, a spokesperson for the Department of Health told InnovationAus the app has “strong privacy and security controls”, and all information is provided voluntarily.

Lucie Krahulcova
Lucie Krahulcova: There is a need for greater transparency

The official coronavirus app was launched last month to provide an official source of information for Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a symptoms checker, media releases, official statistics and contact information.

It was developed by Canberra-based tech firm Delv and was downloaded nearly one million times in the days after it was launched by the Prime Minister.

The app also has a function where a user can voluntarily declare if they are in quarantine or isolation, with the app then asking for permission to access location data from their device.

But there is a need for greater transparency around the design, operation and intention of the app, with little publicly available information on what data the app is collecting from its users and how it is being used, the organisations said.

“The government is gambling away public trust by not being clear about what their approach is and how this may – even if temporarily – impact on individuals’ liberties,” Access Now Asia policy analyst Lucie Krahulcova said.

“The questions we have posed to the health minister are some of the most basic and hopefully only service as a stepping stone for how the government thinks about privacy and informed consent, and ultimately their responsibility towards protecting the safety and security of individuals during this time.”

The organisations wrote to the minister outlining concerns about “unintended negative consequences” from the app, including the “encroachment on Australians’ right to privacy, freedom of association and expression”.

“Unprecedented steps to gather and use Australians’ data may be necessary to minimise the spread of the virus now, but exceptional measures must come with additional safeguards and a clear vision for when they are no longer necessary,” the groups said in the letter.

“Sunset clauses serve that purpose in legislation and we believe it is essential for public trust to understand the duration, scope and extent of measures that the government is turning to in this time.”

The HLRC wanted specific information on any data and metadata collected by the apps, especially for users who have registered that they are in isolation, along with any other data it collects on users.

The letter also asked for more transparency around the purpose of the data collection and whether it is being provided to third parties, as well as the safeguards and policies currently in place.

The organisations wrote to Mr Hunt at the start of this month but are yet to receive a response.

In response to InnovationAus, the Department of Health spokesperson said the app does not include a contact tracking functionality or the ability to track a users’ location or data, apart from the voluntary isolation registration process.

“The app allows people to voluntarily register that they are isolating. The Department of Health and the Digital Transformation Agency have strong privacy and security controls in place to deal with any personal data submitted by users and will continue to be appropriately informed by privacy considerations,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.

“Information provided voluntarily through the Coronavirus Australia app offer insights into community behaviour to influence the government’s health service response and improve service delivery.”

Transparency around how the government is using technology to fight COVID-19 is crucial for maintaining public trust and participation, Digital Rights Watch chair Lizzie O’Shea said.

“Whatever system the government proposes must ensure human rights are protected; this is the only way to build the confidence and trust of the community being asked to use it,” Ms O’Shea said.

“Whether it’s a dedicated app or any other mechanism, reporting and oversight of the operation needs to be transparent, must include a sunset clause, and any information gathered cannot be used for any other purpose.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Helen Lewin 4 years ago

    The Privacy Commissioner must review this App and conduct a PIA. That way the Govt can be informed on the measures that must implement to protect an individuals privacy and their PII.

  2. Anon Coward 4 years ago

    “right to privacy, freedom of association and expression” – what century are you living in? Australians have none of these things.

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