Australian Ministers Debate COVID-19 Tracing App Privacy Concerns

April 20, 2020 Updated: May 1, 2020

Australian members of Parliament and government ministers have weighed in on a debate about privacy concerns over the federal government’s new COVID-19 tracing app.

Federal MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce raised concerns in a post on Twitter about whether the new app will really be safe from hacking and cited a London study.

On April 20, Joyce cited a study conducted by Imperial College about how 90 percent of individuals were able to be identified by four random data sets.

On April 18, Independent New South Wales MP Zali Steggal added her concerns, writing, “lack of trust and transparency in Govt will be biggest obstacle for Aus people to accept contact tracing app. Govt needs to establish National Anti Corruption Commission and independent oversight committee to establish good faith.”

Other federal government ministers responded to Steggal’s and Joyce’s comments on Twitter.

Senator Andrew Bragg, chair of the Select Senate Committee on FinTech, said the app would improve the ability to trace people who had come into contact with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said at a press conference that the government would never have access to any of the data stored on phones.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert—who spearheaded the app—explained in an interview with FiveAA on April 16, that the technology is not a surveillance tool and won’t geo-locate or track users in any way.

He said the government had worked with cyber intelligence-gathering agencies the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate to develop the app.

Robert said it was a way to digitize current tracing procedures that are being utilized by the Department of Health to control the outbreak.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also wrote on Twitter to assure Australians that using the app would be voluntary, after previously hinting that optional use might only be “Plan A.”

The new COVID-19 tracing app is based on a Singaporean app called “TraceTogether.”

The Australian version of the app will utilize the same Bluetooth technology as Singapore’s, but would only download information after a user has been in contact with a confirmed case for 15 minutes or more.

The phones will exchange mobile phone numbers in a highly encrypted format that hides the identity of both users, and will store the data for 21 days. The minister said data will not be able to be accessed by the government and will only be utilized if a person tests positive for COVID-19.

Researchers at Macquarie University (pdf), published a short review of Singapore’s “TraceTogether” app and concluded that it has some privacy issues.

They pointed out that the Singaporean app does little to really control the government’s access to a user’s data, and has the potential to be used for mass surveillance, as the data is not destroyed after the 21 days.