CovidSafe app speech

May 12, 2020

I rise to speak on the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. This is legislation that protects the privacy of data that is volunteered by people who voluntarily download the COVIDSafe app. Obviously, these are extraordinary times. Right now in several overseas countries there are fleets of drones monitoring neighbourhoods to check the compliance of citizens with the social-distancing restrictions imposed by their governments. This sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but sadly this is the world that we live in in 2020 and the world as it will be for a very long time.

There is no denying the importance of containing the spread of COVID-19. It's a very dangerous disease that has now caused the death of more than 100 Australians and more than 283,000 people worldwide, and these numbers will continue to rise. On International Nurses Day I particularly mention the nurses who've been involved in helping people but also those nurses who've given their lives whilst caring for people around the world.

Restrictions on people's liberties have been applied across the world to contain the spread of the virus—individual rights sacrificed for the safety of the herd. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has launched the COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker to track what measures are being imposed by countries around the world. As of today, 84 countries have emergency declarations in place; 30 countries have measures which affect expression; and 111 countries have imposed measures that affect assembly. So balancing human rights is always a difficult task. Obviously, there is a legitimate need to contain our movements to stop the virus spreading. It is important to ensure that everyone is given accurate information explaining the why, and measures to keep people safe should always be seriously considered. However, history has taught us that often when governments gain new powers they are usually reluctant to give them back and never do so quickly. A robust democracy is more important in times of crisis than at any other time.

The opposition should not be condemned for questioning the coalition government about any measures they impose. We can't ask Australians to make sacrifices and then have a government that doesn't bring them into their confidences. It is the job of opposition to hold governments to account. To paraphrase the member for Rankin today in his speech in response to the Treasurer: it might be the Labor Party that the government wants, but it is not the opposition that the nation needs. It is more important than ever that we continue to question, call out inconsistencies and demand explanations about how our economy, our community and our human rights will be protected after this crisis is over because it will be a changed Australia and a changed world.

Labor has consistently supported the concept of a tracing app. We know that a tracing app can be a critical tool in the COVID-19 exit strategy, but equally we know that we have to get the balance right. We've heard many speeches tonight detailing some of the technical and more complicated issues associated with the COVIDSafe app. The government launched the COVIDSafe app just a few weeks ago and said that we would need to get to 40 per cent of Australians, or 10 million Australians, and so far there have been more than five million downloads of the app.

The purpose of the legislation before the House that we're debating right now is to protect data collected by the COVIDSafe app. Before I talk about the privacy protections because that was what I was most concerned about, it is important to understand how the COVIDSafe app collects the data and what data it collects. Firstly, the app only works on smartphones and the smartphone must have a compatible operating system. As we've heard from previous speakers, many people do not have phones that are compatible, particularly some elderly Australians who've been contacting my office most concerned. If the app is open and running on a person's smartphone, the app will use the phone's bluetooth capability to seek out the bluetooth signals from other smartphones that have downloaded the app and have it also open and running. Where a smartphone running the app detects another smartphone running the app, each smartphone will create a digital handshake and store this on the individual smartphones as an encrypted file. The smartphone's ability to detect and store this digital handshake will be optimum when the smartphone is unlocked—and that is not necessarily how most people carry their phones.

The only data stored on the phone from the digital handshake is that the user of the downloaded COVIDSafe app was in contact with another user of the COVIDSafe app; the unique ID of the other user of the COVIDSafe app; the strength of the bluetooth signal during the digital handshake; and the date and time of the digital handshake. The smartphone will continue to create a digital handshake with the other user of the COVIDSafe app every minute that it remains within bluetooth proximity. The encrypted digital handshake will be stored on the smartphone for a period of 21 days before it is automatically deleted.

We know that there have been issues with this app since it was released a few weeks ago. My electorate office has had many calls, including today, from people who are willing but unable to download the app. Sometimes it's because their phones are not compatible due to the age of the phone. Many of them have been elderly people. Unfortunately, they're also the people most at risk should they contract COVID-19. These people perhaps are not in a circumstance where they can rush out and buy a new phone. Some people have been unable to download it for reasons that we just couldn't track down in our interactions with them. All of these constituents were distressed that they could not access something that they believed was going to keep them safer from this awful virus. Some of them misunderstood the app but nevertheless were anxious because of it.

We also know that there are other important technical issues yet to be solved in the operation of this app. As stated by other speakers, particularly the member for Chifley, I'm disappointed that the Australian government chose not to work closely with the Australian tech sector in developing aspects of this. I suggest that that would have been good for employment. We've certainly had information presented that they were capable of responding to it, rather than having to go overseas for everything.
With the member for Grey, I'm a co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Diabetes—or the enemies of diabetes! Unfortunately, Diabetes Australia, the peak body, has had to warn people with diabetes who have downloaded the COVIDSafe app that it may interfere with their lifesaving continuous glucose monitoring apps. People with diabetes, people who have that comorbidity, are perhaps more at risk from COVID-19. This is not good enough. I'm speaking up for people with diabetes.

Since the beginning of this health crisis, Labor has sought to work constructively and in good faith with the government to ensure that Australians are kept safe during this health emergency. Our working with the government on this legislation is an example of that cooperative approach. The shadow Attorney-General, in his speech in response, spoke very highly of working with the Attorney-General, Mr Porter, in terms of working out this legislation. Labor made some suggestions for improving this bill. I'm very pleased that the government took heed of those suggestions and included some in the legislation that we are now debating.

I've talked a bit about the app itself. The most important details about this app are not how the app collects information, not where the information is stored and not how long the information will be stored for. The most important characteristic of this app is how much confidence the public has in its use. So far five million people have downloaded the app and, as has been stated on a list, I am not one of those people as yet. That's not the 40 per cent of the population that the government said we need to make it an effective process. Unless the public have confidence that the app will work consistently and that their data and privacy will be protected, they won't use it. Unless their smartphone can download the app, they can't use it. Unless the app does not interfere with other even more important apps on their phone, such as for diabetes, they can't use it. To state the obvious: if the app is not used, it's not going to do much to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Assuring Australians that their data and privacy will be protected is crucial in gaining public confidence in the app. This bill protects the collection, use and disclosure of information collected by the app, except in a number of prescribed circumstances. Its intention is for contact tracing. The bill creates offences for other unauthorised use of the data. Importantly, the bill contains an override provision in relation to other laws. A warrant obtained by a law enforcement agency for access to COVIDSafe data cannot override the prohibition on access to that data. I will stress that again for the lawyers out there: a warrant obtained by a law enforcement agency cannot override that prohibition on accessing the data. And data collected by the app will not be admissible in any court proceedings.

This is a stronger piece of legislation now that the opposition has had some input into it. We still need to be vigilant and to keep an eye on how these measures will protect the data and privacy of those using the app. Unfortunately, there are some ministers in the Morrison government that I wouldn't trust to feed my goldfish. And I only have one goldfish, so I can't test which ones are competent. I'm not sure if anyone was suggesting they wanted to nominate to feed my goldfish there, but let's hope that the government gets this COVIDSafe app right and that the public does have confidence in it. I'm reassured enough that I will now download the COVIDSafe app—I do have confidence in that process now.
Obviously, sorting out the power save mode and some of the other concerns that have been raised by speakers in the chamber during the debate will, hopefully, make it a more effective process. I call on the government to improve that public confidence in the app by addressing the many technical concerns that have been raised by members of parliament, and by Australians—especially those in my electorate of Moreton—and I commend this privacy legislation to the House.