Should You Download COVIDSafe? Consider These Privacy Concerns First

The Australian Government recently launched COVIDSafe, a contact tracing app which continues to raise concerns about privacy issues and cyber security.

The lead up to its highly anticipated launch filled with intense public debate about the impact of the app on the privacy of its users. Information and undertakings provided by the Federal Government upon launching the app provided reassurance to many, but still leaves a significant number of sceptics in its wake, including parliamentarians.

This article outlines the issues and considers whether there are in fact grounds for ongoing concern.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing, as defined by the World Health Organisation in 2017, is the process whereby health authorities can track down people who have come into contact with a person found to be suffering from an infectious illness. The evolving technology and its use in Australia are novel, not the process of contact tracing as such.

At the outset of the current coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing was being carried out manually in Australia, by the likes of the Australian Police Force and state and territory health departments. But in the context of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, it is easy to see the allure of modern tracking technology as a substitute.

Before Australia went down this surveillance route, Taiwan, South Korea and China reported successes with contact tracing apps to fight the spread of COVID-19. The benefits of enhancing contact tracing with technology are obvious to anyone. Nevertheless, privacy concerns remain. The privacy issue is whether the process constitutes an unwarranted intrusion on a person’s private life, or at least whether it is a disproportionate intrusion when weighed up against the potential benefits.

RELATED: Coronavirus Surveillance Tactics Raise Questions About Civil Liberties

Privacy context

‘Privacy’ has sustained a limited meaning under Australian law, as there is no statutory definition nor statutory right to privacy.

Furthermore, there is no Australian Bill of Rights – most recently a private Member’s Australian Bill of Rights Bill 2019 (Cth) was tabled in September 2019 and removed from the Notice Paper on 24 March 2020 – to negate legislative intrusions on privacy.

Our superior courts have meanwhile consistently rejected the notion that a right of privacy exists at common law. There was some perceived support for the proposition in Australian Broadcasting Corp v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd (2001) 208 CLR 199; 76 ALJR 1; [2001] HCA 63, but enthusiasm was subsequently dampened by interpretations of that decision in Giller v Procopets (No 2) (2009) 24 VR 1; [2009] VSCA 72; Kalaba v Commonwealth [2004] FCA 763; Sands v South Australia [2013] SASC 44 and Wilson v Ferguson [2015] WASC 15.

“Privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in Art 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but this is only meaningful to the extent that it is reflected in Australian domestic law”

– Dr Gordon Hughes AM, Principal lawyer, Davies Collison Cave Law

The ICCPR has not been adopted into Australian domestic law as such, but it did provide a mechanism whereby the Federal Government could rely upon the external affairs power in s 51(xxix) of the Constitution to enact the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth).

The end result is that the extent to which ‘privacy’ is recognised under Australian law at national level is as set out in the Privacy Act.

Putting the COVIDSafe app under a microscope

Before considering how the Privacy Act may serve to constrain the government’s rollout of a contact tracing app, it is necessary to identify what concerns have been raised by the public. Essentially, these concerns fall into one or more of four categories: 

  • Where will the information be stored? Is a central database vulnerable to malicious attacks and information theft, particularly if held outside Australia? 
  • How will the information be used? Sceptics have expressed concern over the prospect of ”scope creep”, meaning that the government or law enforcement agencies might utilise the information gathered from the app for purposes other than the fight against COVID-19. 
  • How long will the information be retained? The longer that the information is retained, the more susceptible it is to unauthorised access or to use out of context. 
  • How long will the scheme run? Should there be a sunset date, limiting the lifespan of the program so as to minimise the likelihood of the data being used for other purposes? 

Relevant Australian Privacy Principles  

Privacy rights recognised by the Privacy Act are essentially enshrined in the 13 Australian Privacy Principles (APPs) as contained in Sch 1 of the Act. Not all of the APPs are of direct or significant relevance to the COVIDSafe debate, but provisions of particular relevance are as follows: 

  • APP 3 – personal information must be collected only by lawful and fair means; 
  • APP 5 – at or before the time of collection of their personal data, individuals must be advised, inter alia, as to the legal basis of collection and the purpose of collection; 
  • APP 6 – personal information may only be used in connection with the primary purpose of collection or a reasonably related secondary purpose; 
  • APP 8 – restrictions are imposed on the ability to disclose personal information to an overseas recipient;  
  • APP 11.1 – personal information must be protected from misuse, interference and loss, and from unauthorised access, modification and disclosure; 
  • APP 11.2 – personal information must not be kept longer than required in connection with the original purpose of collection, unless otherwise provide by law. 

Key features of COVIDSafe 

The launch of COVIDSafe on 26 April 2020 was accompanied by the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Emergency Requirements – Public Health Contact Information) Determination 2020 (the Determination), together with a COVIDSafe Privacy Policy.  

The Determination was made on 25 April 2020, pursuant to the earlier Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) Declaration 2020 of 18 March, under s 475 of the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth). A determination of this nature overrides inconsistent provisions in other Commonwealth legislation. 

Legal features of the scheme include: 

  • the purpose of collection is confined to contact tracing as defined in s 6(2) of the Determination or, in the words of the Privacy Policy, “to help conduct contact tracing when you register for, use or upload, data to COVIDSafe”; 
  • s 9 of the Determination states that the use of the app is “completely voluntary”, with coercion to download the app expressly prohibited; 
  • all registration information will be stored in a cloud-based data storage facility, using infrastructure located in Australia with appropriate security (Determination, s 7(3)); 
  • contact data will be deleted on a rolling 21-day basis (Determination, s 7(2)); 
  • all data will, in the words of the Privacy Policy, be deleted “after the COVID-19 pandemic has concluded as required by the Biosecurity Determination” (see also Determination, s 7(5));  
  • personal information will be used to enable contact tracing by health officials; this will include using a person’s mobile number to send an SMS, using encrypted IDs (decryption is prohibited by s 8 of the Determination), to alert other COVIDSafe users that a positive COVIDSafe user had contact with them in the past 21 days and providing health officials with access to registration information to enable contact tracing, but not for any other purpose; 
  • information can be deleted upon request; contact information stored on a person’s phone will be deleted upon de-installation of the app. De-installation will not automatically delete information already located in the data store and a separate request will be required in that regard. This is emphasised in the Privacy Policy, not in the Determination. 

Privacy strengths and weaknesses of the surveillance app 

From a privacy perspective, the contact tracing app has its strengths and weaknesses. 

“On the positive side, the privacy policy addresses the key privacy issues presently prescribed by law and embedded in the APPs: participation is voluntary; information can be deleted upon request; the purpose of collection and the scope of use is clear; the information will be stored securely and will not be transmitted overseas”

– Dr Gordon Hughes AM, Principal lawyer, Davies Collison Cave Law

However, this may not be sufficient to convince a sceptical public. In this regard, there are four issues of ongoing concern: 

1. Biosecurity concerns 

Under the law as it presently stands, the ability remains for Australian law enforcement agencies to access data stored under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (Cth) (see Sch 5 – Australian Security Intelligence Organisation of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018 (Cth). It is stated in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Determination that the Determination “only allows” for data to be used by law enforcement agencies for the purpose of prosecuting breaches of s 479 of the Biosecurity Act and, whilst this is correct, the Determination does not otherwise expressly prohibit use by law enforcement agencies in other circumstances. 

2. Unease about data hosting  

There is also an ability of US law enforcement agencies to access information stored on US servers (see the USA Patriot Act of 2001, and more recently the US CLOUD Act of 2018). In this regard, there is concern over the fact that Amazon Web Services will host the data. The fact that the data will be hosted in Australia provides insufficient comfort to some, although the threat is probably more illusory than real. APP 6.2(b) permits the disclosure of personal information under an “Australian law” but does not expressly authorise disclosure pursuant to a foreign law in circumstances where the data storage is otherwise subject to Australian law. 

3. No end-game in sight 

There is no sunset clause. In one sense, this would be superfluous, given that the scheme is said to be of finite duration, terminating “when the COVID-19 pandemic has concluded”. Sceptics are, however, concerned about potential imprecision over what will constitute the “conclusion” of the pandemic.  

4. Secrecy over the source code 

The source code of the app had not been released when the app was launched. A number of privacy experts have expressed the view that without access to the source code, they are unable to satisfy themselves that the app is as secure as claimed. 

Underpinning all these concerns is the question of consent. At present the scheme is voluntary. The government has a target of a 40% take-up in order to ensure the data is meaningful. Within 24 hours of launch, 2 million people had downloaded the app. Some are haunted by the Prime Minister’s words on 17 April 2020 that he would “not entirely rule out” making the app mandatory if take-up was insufficient. The following day, the Prime Minister nevertheless did rule out making use of the app mandatory. 

The Victorian Information Commissioner, Sven Bluemmel, believes that  the app will be successful if enough Australians will choose to download it, which simply comes down to trust. Certainly, if the government’s use of the app – and information collected using the app – is restricted in the manner stated at the launch, then privacy concerns have on balance been adequately addressed.  

For what it’s worth: the author of this article has downloaded the app.  

Dr Gordon Hughes AM is a principal lawyer at Davies Collison Cave Law, Melbourne. He is the author of the Thomson Reuters online service Trade Secrets & Privacy and co-author of the texts Data Protection in Australia and Private Life in a Digital World.  A former president of the Law Council of Australia, Dr Hughes has practised in the area of privacy, technology and intellectual property law for over 30 years. 

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