Australian PM Douses Virus Tracking Privacy Concerns

Australian PM Douses Virus Tracking Privacy Concerns
Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in Sydney, Australia on Feb. 1, 2020. (Don Arnold/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says AirDrop-like bluetooth-based contact tracing through mobile phones may be a sacrifice Australians need to make to stop the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

Scott Morrison believes that mobile apps, like those being used overseas based on bluetooth data sharing, can be made acceptable to privacy concerns and help authorities with contact tracing that will prove crucial to saving lives during pandemic caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the coronavirus, if social distancing measures are to be slowly made less restrictive.

The prime minister insists that the federal government is carefully working through privacy issues before an opt-in tracing program is launched.

“We’re not doing it in haste,” he said.

One app released by the Singaporean government, TraceTogether, uses Bluetooth data sharing to register mobile phone users who had spent 15 minutes or more in close proximity to a person with the CCP virus.
The authorities would then have to request individuals who are part of a tracing investigation to share their app’s proximity records, as all records are stored locally on the phone, according to the Singaporean government’s website about the app.

“Keeping logs decentralised on user’s phones rather than on a centralised internet-accessible database means that the information will not be compromised even if the server is breached,” it said.

The app relies on users having a mobile number and a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone where the Bluetooth function remains on.

Morrison said using the proximity data could help save lives and livelihoods.

“If that tool is going to help them do that, then this may be one of the sacrifices we have to make,” he told 6PR radio on April 15.

“There are different apps being done by other companies,” he added.

The prime minister said the app would be a more efficient way of contact tracing CCP virus cases than the current manual investigations.

“What would happen then is the health authorities, who are the only ones who'd have access to that data, would contact those people just like they do now,” he said.

He said the digital information would prevent a reliance on people’s memories.

“At the end of the day (that) would mean we'd save lives and save more livelihoods,” Morrison said.

Singapore, where about 20 percent of people have signed up to the app, has provided the open-source coding information to Australia for its own development, as well as other countries like New Zealand.

Australian health authorities estimate a 40 percent take-up rate would been needed for the scheme to be efficient.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has been tasked with investigating privacy issues surrounding TraceTogether.

Digital Rights Watch chair Lizzie O'Shea said people should be concerned about apps where there are no guarantees about how data would be used.

“No public trust means people will hesitate to install the app, and not-very-subtly coercing people by saying restrictions could ease if surveillance increases is an appalling way to start,” she said.

O'Shea said assurances the attorney-general would look at privacy issues were not enough.

“Everything about this needs to be transparent. The code must be independently audited,” she said.

“There needs to be a clear benchmark for when data will no longer be collected and the app deactivated.”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the app would only proceed after a thorough review and implementation of privacy safeguards.

Deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said such a tool would enhance case detection and interrupt transmission chains.

“With any sort of infectious disease, that’s our fundamental weapon at the moment in the absence of a vaccine,” he told reporters in Canberra.

He said privacy needed to be carefully considered, but labelled it a potentially important tool in the fight against the CCP virus.

By Matt Coughlan