Greater transparency needed around Federal Government’s new COVID 19 phone app

Human rights and privacy experts have called on Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to explain privacy and surveillance issues arising from the Federal Government’s recently launched Coronavirus Australia app. The app has been downloaded over 500,000 times in Australia, yet there is little publicly available information about what data is being collected from people and how that private information is being used and kept safe.

The Coronavirus Australia app is designed to keep people up-to-date with official information regarding the spread of COVID-19, however it also asks for people’s location data if they identify as being in isolation. 

The Government has also fast-tracked the review process for releasing an app being used by the Singaporean Government, which would enable the Government to identify every person a confirmed case has been in contact with, using bluetooth signal. 

While contact tracing may be a vital component of preventing the spread of COVID-19, the uptake of this technology on a large scale could empower the Government to monitor the movements of all Australians, all of the time.

The Human Rights Law Centre, Digital Rights Watch, Access Now and the Centre for Responsible Technologies have called for greater transparency around the use of these highly invasive technologies and warned that their use must be limited to the current crisis or Australia’s democracy would be forever changed.  

Alice Drury, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre:
“At their core, these technologies are about surveillance and control of our everyday lives. It is vital that our Government is transparent about how it chooses to use this power, and we need assurance that this intrusion on how we live doesn't continue unfettered when this pandemic is over.

“We don't want to emerge from this crisis in a country where the Government has the power to trace the movements and contacts of every single one of us, all of the time.”

Lizzie O'Shea, Chair at Digital Rights Watch:
"Whatever system the Government proposes must ensure human rights are protected; this is the only way to build the confidence and trust of the community being asked to use it. Whether it’s a dedicated app or any other mechanism, reporting and oversight of the operation needs to be transparent, must include a sunset clause, and any information gathered cannot be used for any other purpose."

Lucie Krahulcova, Asia Policy Analyst at Access Now:
"The government is gambling away public trust by not being clear about what their approach is and how this may - even if temporarily - impact on individuals' liberties. The questions we have posed to the Health Minister are some of the most basic and hopefully only serve as a stepping stone for how the Government thinks about privacy and informed consent, and ultimately their responsibility towards protecting the safety and security of individuals during this time."

Peter Lewis, Director of The Australia Institute Centre for Responsible Technology:
“At this time of crisis it is essential that any surveillance technology is proven to be effective, has guard rails and red lines on its applications and, critically, has sunsets in its usage. We have seen from previous times of crisis how surveillance can become embedded, the technology cannot be unlearned and a new normal is created.”


Read the coalition’s letter to the Health Minister here.