Contact tracing information in the Australian state of Victoria is accessible to third parties despite earlier government assurances that the data was secure, according to recently unveiled court documents.
Victoria’s Acting Premier Jacinta Allan has since admitted that contact tracing information could be shared with third parties, such as police or government agencies, for public health purposes in “life or death” situations.
“I want to be very, very clear that that is a very, very narrow base that’s provided for in the legislation, that is only there for those extreme circumstances,” Allan told the press on Dec. 29.
This is despite the Victorian government website stating that: “All data collected through the Victorian QR code system is encrypted and can only be used for contact tracing. If there is no outbreak at a venue, your check-in details will be automatically deleted after 28 days.”
The court documents were obtained and made public on Dec. 28 by the Herald Sun and WorkSafe Victoria, which has been in a legal battle with the Victorian Health Department over contact tracing data information, after the latter launched an investigation into the state’s hotel quarantine program after the mid-year outbreak was linked back to Rydges hotel and Stamford Plaza.
They requested documents from the Victorian Health Department for the investigation. However, the department declined to produce documents related to contact tracing, saying it was protected by public interest immunity and confidentiality.
According to the court documents, the department’s refusal to hand over the information was because releasing it would “undermine the public confidence in contact tracing with devastating effect.”
“One of the most important elements of an effective contact tracing system is that members of the public have confidence in the security and confidentiality of the personal information held by the Department …” the health department wrote on Dec. 18, 2020, the Herald Sun reported.
Further, the Victorian Department of Health also applied for a suppression order on the case with Victorian COVID-19 Response Commander Jeroen Weimar launching a legal bid to have the case kept secret for five years to stop the revelation from being made public.
Weimar submitted a confidential affidavit to support the extension of a suppression order on contract tracing information (pdf).
Weimar argued in his submission that if the information was shared, it would stop people from being truthful with contact tracers and that this would lead to the inability to control outbreaks of COVID-19 in Victoria.
“If this were to occur, it would have a devasting impact on the State’s ability to control both this outbreak and any future outbreak and put hundreds of lives at risk,” Weimar said.
However, the Supreme Court of Victoria dismissed the government’s application.
“There cannot be an absolute protection of contact tracing information on public interest immunity grounds which renders it immune from disclosure, irrespective of the precise information concerned, and when, in what circumstances, and for what purpose disclosure of the information is sought,” Justice Andrew Keogh said in a court decision (pdf).
WorkSafe later withdrew its request for contact tracing data and on Sept. 29, charged the health department with 58 breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in the state’s initial hotel quarantine program.