The federal government has declared that the privacy safeguards put in place to control the use of data collected by the COVIDsafe contact tracing app are the strongest ever used.
Seeking to ease public concerns over the safety and security of using the app, which was launched on Sunday, Health Minister Greg Hunt has used his powers under the Biosecurity Act to make unauthorised access or use of the information it collects illegal.
"This is ... probably the safest data that has been provided by any group at any time in Australian history," Mr Hunt said.
"The safeguards that have been put in place are the strongest ever. Not even a court order can penetrate the law."
Within hours of its launch, 1 million people had signed up.
Privacy concerns have threatened to stymie the widespread adoption of the app, which has been developed to help speed and strengthen the work of public health workers in tracing the source of outbreaks and limiting their spread.
The app carries basic encrypted personal information - name, mobile number, age range and postcode. It runs in the background and securely exchanges information, including an encrypted user ID, date and time and signal strength, with apps installed on any phone that stays within 1.5 metres for more than 15 minutes.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the COVIDsafe app would be an important tool in streamlining the contact tracing process.
"Finding out quickly means you can quarantine yourself or be treated much faster, protecting your family and friends from possible infection, and slowing the spread of the virus," Professor Murphy said.
"Without this technology, health officials have to rely on people being able to remember who they have been around, and being able to provide contact details for those people."
There have been concerns that the app might be hacked or used by authorities for other purposes such as tracking and prosecuting people who breach social distancing rules.
But Mr Hunt said the app was voluntary, did not collect location data and carried multiple other safeguards that blocked access except by authorised state or territory public health officials, and only then with the user's permission.
"There is no Commonwealth access and it is stored in Australia and, importantly, it is deleted from your phone after 21 days," he said.
Despite these assurances there is evidence that a significant proportion of the population is yet to be convinced.
A poll by the Australia Institute, conducted before the app's official launch, found that while 45 per cent of people were willing to use the app, 28 per cent would not and 27 per cent were undecided.
But Professor Murphy said he was confident of widespread adoption of the technology.
"There is no magic number. I am very confident, however, that we will get good uptake," he said.
"Good uptake, in my mind, would be well over half the people and I think we will get it."
The app is seen as an important part of strengthening the public health response and giving National Cabinet the confidence to begin easing restrictions.
"The stronger the uptake, the stronger the case," Professor Murphy said.
Mr Hunt said the country had made significant progress in slowing the spread of the virus.
While total infections reached 6711 on Sunday and 83 people have died, Mr Hunt said that in the past seven days there have been just 117 new infections, down from 297 the preceding week.
The app has been endorsed by health organisations including the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association.
Legislation for the app is expected to go before parliament when it resumes sitting on May 11 and Labor's health spokesman Chris Bowen said the opposition would consider it "very constructively".
Mr Bowen said people had "very valid" privacy concerns about the app, and Labor had been in discussions with the government over the draft laws.
He said the most important safeguard was ensuring that any data stored on the app was only used for tracing COVID-19 contacts.
"It is as simple as ensuring that any data that's stored on the app is only used for the purposes of tracing contacts for COVID-19 in a positive diagnosis," Mr Bowen said.
"Not for any purpose, by any other agency. Only by state health agencies for that purpose. Not by any court, not by any tribunal, not any department, or any government, other than for that purpose and that purpose strictly alone."
The app's release has come amid a ramping up of testing around the country, with states and territories increasingly expanding testing to include people with cold and flu symptoms and a random sample of those attending medical centres for treatment.
Mr Hunt said Australia already had one of the most extensive testing regimes in the world, with 506,000 so far conducted.
He cited research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which found that Australia had the most accurate case ascertainment rate out of 83 countries assessed.
"What we have seen is a sustained and consolidated and now extended flattening of the curve," the minister said.
But he warned that "we have not won yet".
The minister said there were more then 500 cases where the source of infection had not yet been identified, underlining the need for as many people as possible to download the COVIDsafe app.
"It may be that two people have been standing in a line and one of them had accidentally been a little bit close.
"It may have been on public transport. Their names are not known and you would not be able to find that person and notify them that they were at risk," he said, though if people had the app loaded on there phones, authorised health workers could contact at-risk people in minutes.
Mr Hunt used his powers under the Biosecurity Act as an interim to establish privacy protections in the app before legislation is introduced to parliament.
Mr Bowen said the government had accepted Labor's suggestion that the legislation and privacy aspects of the app be referred to Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 for oversight.
"It's essential that there be some sort of parliamentary oversight of the legislation, and some opportunity for parliament to examine the legislation, before we actually vote on it," Mr Bowen said.
"That [the committee hearing] will be an important step for the Australian people to see whether their concerns have been addressed."
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the protections introduced by the government addressed many of his concerns.
"Many of my initial concerns about the method of data collection, the actual data collected, who has access to the data and the security of the data appeared to have been addressed through the redesign of the app," Mr Barr said, "[including] the clarity over access to the data and the public release of the source code and the privacy impact assessment."
Registration will require users to input their:
- mobile phone number - so they can be contacted if needed for contact tracing.
- name - so the relevant health officials can confirm they are speaking to the right person, although the Health Minister says you can use a fake name if you want.
- age range - so health officials can prioritise cases for contact tracing.
- postcode - to make sure health officials from the right state and territory are dealing with your case.
COVIDSAFE IN USE
The app will record the following contact data:
- the encrypted user ID.
- date and time of the contact.
- the Bluetooth signal strength of other COVIDSafe users you come into contact with. This will be logged every two hours in the National COVIDSafe data store.
- No location data will be collected at any time.
- Contact data stored on a device will be deleted after 21 days.
- All data stored will be deleted once the pandemic has concluded.
- Personal information collected via COVIDSafe will handled in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988 and the Biosecurity Determination 2020.
- There will be criminal penalties and anyone breaches someone's privacy.
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