Australia’s COVIDSafe Experiment, Phase III: Legislation for Trust in Contact Tracing
(2020) University of New South Wales Law Research Series
40 Pages Posted: 17 May 2020
Date Written: May 15, 2020
The joint Australian governments’ coronavirus contact tracing app, marketed as ‘COVIDSafe’, was released on 26 April 2020 for public download by the federal government, together with an emergency Determination under the Biosecurity Act to govern its operation. In a brief federal Parliamentary sitting from 12-14 May, the Parliament enacted the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Act 2020 (Cth) (‘the COVIDSafe Act’) on 14 May 2020.
The COVIDSafe app is more toward the centralised than decentralised end of the spectrum in the design of such apps, but its use is voluntary, and the government claims that will continue to be the case.
The Act aims to create sufficient public confidence in the privacy protections surrounding the COVIDSafe app to result in downloads and use by a sufficient percentage of the Australian mobile-phone-owning population, for it to have a significant effect on the tracing of persons infected with the COVID19 virus. In the first two and a half weeks since its launch over 5.5 million Australian’s have downloaded the app, about 25% of those possible, and 20% of the population. Public trust must become more widespread, before success in uptake is likely to follow.
Now that the Bill has been enacted, the purpose of this article is to provide a reasonably comprehensive explanation of the provisions of the COVIDSafe Act and important aspects of their Australian context. Significant deficiencies in both the extent of transparency around the introduction of the COVIDSafe app, and the privacy-protective provisions of the Act, are identified and improvements suggested. These extensive suggestions are made because debate over the app and the Act is not over, and opportunities to obtain improvements may arise, particularly through the operation of the two Parliamentary committees examining Australia’s COVID-19 response, and the human rights implications of the Act.
Many other countries are developing contact tracing apps. Australia’s experiment is further advanced than most that are attempting to build a system based on voluntary uptake, protected by legislation. The results of its experiment will be of interest to many.
Keywords: privacy, data protection, coronavirus, COVID19, Australia, contact tracing, proximity, tracking, surveillance, app, trust
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