Greens, lawyers’ alliance in push to protect COVID check-in data

The Greens and the Australian Lawyers Alliance are pushing for COVID-19 contact tracing check-in data to be used only for health reasons, following successful attempts by law-enforcement authorities in some states to access the data and fears it could be used in legal proceedings.

It follows the Australian Privacy Commissioner telling InnovationAus in September that police access to COVID-19 check-in app histories has the potential to “undermine” contact tracing efforts and should be prohibited.

The Greens plan to introduce a bill to Federal Parliament later this month that will ban law enforcement agencies from accessing the data, although it’s unclear whether it will get support from Labor or the government.

Contact tracing app data should only be used for health purposes, rights groups say

Also unclear is how such a federal law could restrict the disclosure of data of a state or territory government-run app to law-enforcement given COVID check-in apps are governed by state privacy laws, not federal ones; a spokesman for Attorney-General Michaelia Cash told The Sydney Morning Herald: “Concerns about the handling of check-in data should be addressed by the relevant state or territory authority and/or the privacy regulator in that jurisdiction.”

Despite this, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said on Thursday that federal legislation was urgently needed to ensure COVID-19 tracing data was used only for health purposes in every state and territory.

“Unless there is serious law reform, COVID-19 data breaches are sure to become a reality,” said ALA spokesperson and lawyer Greg Barns. “Everyone needs to have confidence that the data obtained through these QR codes is only ever used for managing the pandemic.

“There needs to be the application of serious sanctions and personal liability for leaders who allow the illegal and unethical gathering of data through these tracing apps,” he said.

“In addition, laws are needed to make it impossible for evidence obtained as a result of accessing COVID-19 tracing app data to be used in legal proceedings.”

Mr Barns said contact tracing apps rely on public confidence in relation to how the highly personal data that is collected will be stored and used.

“If people don’t have confidence that their personal data is being accessed for the sole purpose of contact tracing they will stop using the app,” he said.

“This will have a devastating impact on the protection of public health.

“Police, law enforcement, security agencies and many politicians have very little respect for the current privacy laws. This culture, and the extraordinary quantity of data now available, means the COVID-19 tracing app data is fertile ground for further undermining of our right to privacy. As a result, federal legislation to protect this data is urgently needed.”

As reported by InnovationAus in June, Western Australian police twice accessed data from the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing check-in app, forcing the state government to introduce urgent legislation to prevent it from happening again. The data was reportedly sought in order to find potential witnesses to a crime committed near a cafe.

And in Victoria, police attempted to take data from the app three times without a warrant, but were blocked by the health department. Victoria Police can access information with a court-issued warrant, government services minister Danny Pearson revealed in June, adding later in the month that he did not support the introduction of legislation restricting police access.

Meanwhile, in Queensland, police have also made use of the state’s check-in app data as part of an investigation into the reported theft of an officer’s gun and Taser from a regional pub. Officers were later directed not to access such data “except in extraordinary circumstances” and the officer involved was stood down pending an ethical standards investigation.

The NSW government is one of the few states that, from the start, has had restrictions baked into its public health orders that restrict police access.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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