State governments risk losing community trust and participation in crucial QR code check-in contact tracing apps if police remain able to access this information for other purposes, a number of legal, human rights and civil liberties organisations have warned.
The Western Australia government earlier this month moved to urgently legislate to block police from accessing data from its own check-in contact tracing app after it was revealed it had taken information from it on two occasions as part of criminal investigations.
The WA Police Force was previously legally able to do this on request, without a warrant.
In Victoria, police have to apply for a court-issued warrant in order to access QR code check-in data on an individual. It was revealed last week that Victoria Police had attempted to take data from the app three times, but was blocked by the health department.
But the state government has maintained that it will not be introducing legislation restricting police access to this data even with a warrant.
The situation is similar in Queensland, where police can still access data from the state’s check-in app with a warrant.
The prospect of this risks damaging community trust in these public health measures, Deakin University senior lecturer Dr Monique Mann said.
“This is massive scope creep. We have to just say no, this is just for contact tracing purposes, and put those hard protections in place. Otherwise the community won’t trust this, the community won’t do it,” Dr Mann told InnovationAus.
“It’s important to have strong protections in place so the public trusts you and participates in these surveillance systems that are being implemented for quite a legitimate aim in relation to public health. If law enforcement accesses that information outside of that legitimate aim then it undermines the entire system and the community’s trust in it.”
The federal government introduced legislation last year restricting access to data from its COVIDSafe app for any purpose other than contact tracing, something which Western Australia has now also done with its check-in app.
In a joint statement, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), Liberty Victoria, the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre and the Human Rights Law Centre urged the state government to urgently introduce legislation to block police from the QR code app.
“The Andrews government needs to be proactive in protecting the integrity of the contact tracing system. Victoria cannot afford another major outbreak because public faith in check-in data security was undermined by it being used for purposes other than the public health uses for which it is intended,” VALS head of policy Andreea Lachsz said.
Liberty Victoria president Julia Kretzenbacher said specific legislation is needed to address this issue.
“The government needs to introduce laws which state expressly that check-in data can only be used for public health purposes. Police already have sufficient and strong investigation powers, they do not also need access to private check-in data,” Ms Kretzenbacher said.
“Successful contact tracing requires trust and in order for Victorians to trust the system, they need to be confident their personal data is only used for a public health purpose.”
The police union in Victoria agrees that they should not have access to this information.
“People have an expectation and a right to the safeguarding and privacy of personal information,” Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said earlier this month.
“Given QR codes were introduced in the best interest of community health, are temporary and rely wholly on community compliance, we believe that the data collected should be free of any intrusion whatsoever, outside of its original purpose of contact tracing.”
The Victorian Opposition has also called for this legislation to be introduced “urgently”.
But speaking last week, government services minister Danny Pearson said he was reluctant to do this.
“The idea of introducing legislation to prevent that occurring would lead to a poor public policy outcome,” Mr Pearson said.
“In this particular case, my personal view is I don’t think we should be legislating. The courts will be best placed to make a determination because at the end of the day courts can make a determination on any form of warrants on any sort of issues.”
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