13 May 2020
Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020
I also rise to speak on the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. As we've heard from previous speakers, this bill seeks to amend the Privacy Act by introducing a range of privacy protections for information that Australians provide through the COVIDSafe app, the contact-tracing app released on 26 April 2020. In the best interests of public welfare, in order to assist in Australia's ongoing COVID-19 response, Labor has agreed to support this bill. Notwithstanding this support, Labor is aware of concerns with the functionality of the app as well as concerns raised by software experts regarding the security of the app. It's important that we speak to these issues in this chamber today and acknowledge them.
Downloads of the app number around five million, or 20 per cent of the population in Australia—only halfway to where we need to be if we are to meet the Prime Minister's own stated target of 40 per cent of the population connected to the app. Ultimately, the public won't come on board unless they have confidence that their privacy will be protected. Given this government's track record on technology, you can hardly blame them for that reluctance.
The app offers an automated version of contract tracing through bluetooth. It enables a user's phone to identify who is near and to prepare a record of who its user has been near. We are told these records are ready to go, in case a user contracts COVID-19, allowing immediate contact to be made with people who have come into contact with the user. The government has stated the app will only take a very limited amount of personal data from app users, such as their name, mobile number, postcode and age range. We have been assured it won't keep track of where a user is or who a user is with. Appropriately, it makes it an offence to collect, use or disclose that data except in a number of prescribed circumstances, including where the collection, use or disclosure of the data is by a person employed by a state or territory health authority for the purpose of contact tracing.
Furthermore, the bill makes it an offence to retain COVID app data on a database outside Australia or to disclose COVID app data to a person outside of Australia, except where the person is a health official undertaking contact tracing. It also imposes a range of obligations on the government, including to ensure that the COVID app data is not retained on a mobile telecommunications device for more than 21 days, to delete all of an app user's data from the national COVIDSafe data store as soon as practicable upon request and to delete all COVID app data from the national COVIDSafe data store when the health minister is satisfied that COVIDSafe is no longer required to prevent or control the spread of COVID-19 in Australia.
The bill also gives the Privacy Commissioner specific oversight to ensure appropriate enforcement. Labor's shadow Attorney-General has sought assurances from the government on whether the Privacy Commissioner has sufficient resources to enable her to fulfil the additional oversight responsibilities under the bill as well as other protective amendments for the bill which are appropriate to seek and implement.
Ultimately, Labor wants see this app work. I've downloaded it, as have many of my colleagues. A contact-tracing app can be a valuable tool in our fight against coronavirus. But the government needs to be very clear about whether the app works and what protections are in place to protect Australian citizens. We have consistently raised and sought reassurances concerning functionality, privacy and consent. Broadly speaking, we have raised issues at the Senate select committee hearings into the COVID response, including why the app doesn't work on iPhones unless it's open in the background and why it's not compatible with things like the diabetes-monitoring app. I am particularly concerned about what protections are in place for Australians' data and for Australians' privacy.
We need to acknowledge that legislation alone cannot build confidence in the COVIDSafe app. It won't give the public the confidence they need to download this app on the levels we need to see them downloading the app for it to work. That's why Labor has called on the government to address the technical concerns raised about the app by ensuring the thing works as it should, as it was intended to do. The government needs to provide additional resources to the Privacy Commissioner so Australians can be confident that, in addition to having the powers she needs to protect the privacy of app users, she has the resources she requires to exercise those powers in an appropriate circumstance. The government needs to be transparent and provide Australians with as much information as possible so that they can have confidence in this app and what it means for their data, privacy and security.
I want to briefly comment on the awarding of this important contract to Amazon Web Services. America is of course one of our enduring allies—a nation-state with which we share many of the same values. I'm not in a position to pass judgement on why this contract could not be given to a local firm and whether there is an issue of capability or cost, or a combination of these factors or any others. What I am in a position to say is that data management in the modern world we live in is becoming an ever-growing national security responsibility which our government needs to manage and needs to manage better. The same sensitivities we engage in when it comes to intelligence and national security issues should equally apply here.
Just as we engage in issues of sovereignty when discussing the sustainment and rebuild of the nation's submarine fleet, so must we consider the necessity of data sovereignty. Indeed, if there is one sentiment that many Australians have been relaying recently during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that Australia needs to get back to producing things and to reclaim a certain amount of sovereignty, so that we are able to take charge of our own futures and be less reliant on others. If there is one thing Australians are producing plenty of in our digitalised economy, it is data. Some say that data in the 21st century is what oil was in the 18th century—an immensely untapped, valuable asset. Not only would increasing our sovereign capability in this area be good for local jobs and our economy; it would also improve our national security credentials. In times of crisis, as we can see here, this matters.
I think it's also important that, when discussing this app, we take an opportunity to reflect on what is an ever-growing digital divide in Australia. We know technology is not available to all Australians equally, and that if you have access to technology you have access to a greater range of opportunities in Australia than if you do not. This divide is growing larger and larger. It's particularly evident in issues of age, where we know plenty of older Australians have difficulty accessing and using technology. For many years we have seen this produce negative outcomes for their participation in our economy.
If you take the issue of financial payments, not having access to a smartphone and, therefore, to certain payment platforms through the phone that other Australians have makes payments very difficult. During this COVID crisis, more businesses have moved to not accepting cash or trying not to accept cash, changing to digital payments, which leaves those without access to these sorts of technologies even further behind and even more anxious about how they participate in the economy and participate in our world. We are seeing fewer bank branches and fewer ATMs. We are seeing banks and businesses rely more on contactless payments. This app just represents another example, like contactless payments, where the divide between those who can and those who cannot afford and access and use technology is far greater.
There are plenty of people, I'm sure, in Australia who would like to download this app, participate in what government is doing here and be part of protecting their fellow citizens from COVID-19, but, because of their lack of access to the right technology, they're not able to do so. As our reliance on technology grows stronger and, indeed, as government's reliance on personal hand-held technology in their policy responses grows even stronger, we need to have a conversation in this place about how we ensure that we don't have a whole section of our community left behind by this digital divide.
Notwithstanding these issues that I've raised, I support the development of this app and, as I said, I did download the app. I was happy to do so and happy to participate in supporting my community and protecting my community the best I could. If it's used appropriately, if it's implemented properly, it will be an important tool in our fight against this devastating virus. But, just because I've said it's important, just because I've downloaded it, it does not mean I do not acknowledge the privacy risks and the issues around data sovereignty and digital access, as I've raised today. I think it's important that we have that conversation. It's not a single conversation. It'll be an important part of our role in monitoring the rollout of this app and the use of this app to ensure those issues are carefully looked at and carefully managed. It's over to the government now, with the app's implementation, to protect Australians' privacy, sovereignty and, ultimately, health. We will be watching them closely, but, in the interim, I'm happy to support this app.