The Victorian government won’t move to completely block police access to its COVID-19 QR code check-in app data despite authorities trying to obtain this information on multiple occasions, in what digital rights advocates have labelled a “betrayal of trust”.
Last week the Western Australian government introduced urgent legislation restricting access to data from its QR code check-in app for anything except for contact tracing, blocking police from this information. This came after revelations police in WA had twice accessed data from the app as part of criminal investigations.
It was quickly confirmed that this was also possible in Victoria, with police able to access data from the Service Victoria QR code check-in app with a court-issued warrant.
At a budget estimates hearing on Monday afternoon, acting police minister Danny Pearson confirmed that Victoria Police had requested data from the app three times in December last year, but that the police were rebuffed by the Health Department and Service Victoria.
Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, who also appeared at the Estimates hearing, said that these were “informal” requests, and the police did not opt to go to the courts for a warrant.
Despite these requests and the possibility of a warrant allowing access to data provided for the purpose of contact tracing, Mr Pearson said he does not support the introduction of legislation to restrict access to this information.
“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 sorts of issues.”
But there are ongoing concerns that the prospect of the police accessing contact tracing information will undermine confidence in the system and prevent some people being truthful with health authorities and checking into venues around the country, as is currently required.
Digital Rights Watch program lead Sam Floreani said that police accessing data from these check-in apps is a “betrayal of trust”.
“Police access to COVID-19 check-in app data undermines public trust, and without trust people are less likely to use them,” Ms Floreani told InnovationAus.
“This is the latest example of why strong privacy protections and red lines around police access to data are in the interest of effective public health measures.”
At the budget hearing, Mr Patton confirmed the process that could see police accessing the names and phone numbers people have provided to the Victorian government app in order to check into a venue.
If police did apply for a warrant, it would then be “incumbent on the court, on the judge or magistrate to consider and take into account the balancing of human rights aspects or the necessity and the justification”.
“So it’s not a situation where Victoria Police can decide that we will get that from Service Victoria. It’s where a judge or magistrate would grant a warrant to us,” Mr Patton said.
The Victorian government’s response is in stark contrast to that of its Western Australian counterpart, which last week moved quickly to introduce legislation blocking the police from accessing check-in app data in all circumstances.
The WA Police Force had on two occasions accessed data from the app, and after being unable to convince them to stop doing this, the state government introduced legislation last week.
“The principal purpose of [the app] is to help us deal with any outbreaks. It’s not to help us solve crime. We’re legislating to make that very clear,” WA Premier Mark McGowan said.
Police in Queensland can also apply to the courts for a warrant to access data from the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing check-in app.
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