The QR code check-in data of Victorians will be shielded from law enforcement under the state government’s new pandemic bill, revealed publicly on Tuesday.
The Pandemic Bill, released public on Tuesday morning, included increased restrictions on the sharing of “contact tracing information”, including QR code data collected when individuals check in to venues.
There have been significant concerns that law enforcement have and will access this data for purposes not relating to the pandemic response after it was revealed that Western Australia Police had accessed data from the state’s QR code check-in app twice.
It was later revealed that Victoria Police had tried to access data from the state app on three occasions but had been rebuffed by the Department of Health.
Currently, Victoria Police are able to access this QR code check-in data with a court-issued warrant.
But the new Pandemic Bill places significantly more stringent restrictions on this, with law enforcement only able to access contact tracing information if there is an “imminent threat to the life, health, safety or welfare of at least one person” and with a Supreme Court-issued warrant.
“The new laws will enshrine a person’s right to privacy, with the new framework making it an offence to use information obtained through contact tracing for non-public health purposes. These protections go further than any Australian jurisdiction,” the Victorian government said.
“Law enforcement bodies will not be able to access information given to contact tracers and information voluntarily supplied through QR codes, manual check-ins, interview information and other forms of data will be protected.
“This type of personal information can only be used for public health purposes, except for when consent is given or where someone’s life may be at risk.”
The legislation will make it an offence to use or disclose this information without authorisation, with penalties of a $11,000 fine for individuals and more than $54,000 for a company.
The reforms will remove the current “uncertainty and disputes over the boundaries protecting information collected for contact tracing”, the state government said.
“Such information has been collected under emergency powers in extraordinary circumstances, while justifiably limiting the right to privacy, across all Australian jurisdictions,” it said.
“As this information is collected for the primary purpose of managing the threat of harm posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this safeguarding scheme is intended to protect against use or disclosure for unjustifiable purposes.”
It was revealed earlier this year that Victoria Police had repeatedly attempted to access data from the state government’s COVID-19 contact tracing QR code check-in app. The police were knocked by the department and did not attempt to obtain a warrant for the data.
At the time, the Victoria government appeared reluctant to legislate to block law enforcement access, with Government Services Minister Danny Pearson saying it would lead to a “poor public policy outcome”.
“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,” Mr Pearson said in June.
The new legislation comes soon after the federal Privacy Commissioner called on the states and territories to restrict access to this data, saying police involvement with it would “undermine” contact tracing efforts.
“The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner considers that health orders that expressly prohibit access to contact tracing data for law enforcement purposes are best able to protect personal information and increase community trust and confidence in using QR codes,” Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said earlier this month.
“Allowing personal information to be used for other purposes may undermine an effective and efficient contact tracing system, for example, by discouraging individuals from giving accurate information. Where state and territory public health orders permit other uses and disclosures, the orders should be specific to provide transparency and clarity.”
The Greens are also planning to introduce legislation to the federal Parliament banning law enforcement from accessing this data, although the issue is handled by the state and territory governments.
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