The new mobile phone coronavirus app might be introduced without legislation to back it, Health Department acting secretary Caroline Edwards revealed on Thursday.
Concerns have been raised about about privacy and hacking, despite government assurances that data collected from the app will only be used to help trace contacts when someone is diagnosed with coronavirus and will be deleted once the pandemic is over.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert has suggested the government will protect data by regulation or legislation, but he has also said the app would be in place within a week or two.
Ms Edwards said "all sorts of options" were being considered to entrench the rules on how the mobile phone app would be used.
While legislation was one option, others included "activity under the biosecurity declaration", agreements with the states and territories about use of the data, and "maybe other options of which I'm not aware".
She had no knowledge of legislation being introduced in May, she said.
"I'm not sure I can comment more on the content of hypothetical legislation that I'm not aware there's been a decision about ... but I can tell you there are various options being considered for how the app is bolstered or put in place," she said, speaking at a Senate inquiry into the coronavirus response.
When someone downloads the app, their name, age range and postcode are stored, and a unique identifier is assigned to the user. If someone spends more than 15 minutes within 1.5 metres of someone else who also has the app their phones will swap the encrypted identifier. If they stay healthy, the information is deleted at the end of the pandemic. If someone is diagnosed with the coronavirus, information about the people with whom they came into contact is shared with state public health authorities, who will receive phone numbers.
The data would remain encrypted at all times other than when it was shared with public health authorities for contact tracing of cases, she said.
The app would save tracing teams from having to review CCTV footage and use other slow methods to find contacts of known cases.
She had not been given a roll-out date.
The department was working "very hard and very quickly" on coding, how the rules would be entrenched, communications, and cyber security to ensure it was ready, she said.
"Our absolute aim here is to maximise the uptake, to make people feel comfortable to download the app, with the absolute assurance that it will not be used for any purpose other than to ensure we can contact and trace people who may have been in contact."
Asked whether the privacy controls would be in place before the app was launched, she said, "We're a little bit in hypothetical territory, but my understanding ... is those privacy and other issues will be dealt with before the app is launched and the options for ensuring they're dealt with are being explored."
There would be no geolocation data stored, no access to the data by anyone other than public health officials, the data would be encrypted at all times other than when given to state health authorities, and it would not be used for anything other than public health.
Phones would have to have bluetooth enabled for the app to work.
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- For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
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