Perspectives / Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures-the COVIDsafe

LOUISE DONOHUE, SC, PRI, Accredited Mediator

On any view of it, we are in extraordinary times. We are in the midst of a pandemic. People are dying.

COVID-19 is, in many respects, unique compared to recent mass infectious diseases, like SARS and MERS. This disease is potentially fatal. It is highly contagious. It does not discriminate. Asymptomatic infected persons can spread it and its sequelae are not confined to pneumonia. It has been linked to major organ damage due to embolism and in children, severe septic shock.

In Australia and New Zealand the response by government has been remarkable. It has been a non-partisan response, so mercifully it hasn’t been politicised. It has been guided by science and common sense in the interests of public health. Public health here is an exercise in saving lives and preserving health by, amongst other things, prescribing, guiding and encouraging responsible and safe personal conduct, testing and contact tracing.

Viewed in this way, the COVID safe App is not an extraordinary measure. It’s just plain good common sense. You should download the COVIDSafe App to improve the chances of you, your loved ones and friends surviving the pandemic unharmed.

People are right to be sceptical of government, especially governments that have exaggerated terrorism-related national-security risks to clamp down on journalism that might embarrass the government politically.

But this is different, and its legal, privacy and civil-rights basis is solid.

COVIDSafe works by anonymously logging each time another COVIDSafe user comes into range for a few minutes. The log is kept securely in the phone and rolls over every three weeks. Old records are continually purged. If and when a user tests positive to coronavirus,
they can upload the log to their state health department, which will then contact logged contacts and arrange for them to quarantine and get tested.

The App doesn’t track where any user goes. It merely records when pairs of users have come close, not where that meeting took place. By notifying people that they have been exposed before they show symptoms, the chances of spreading the infection is reduced.

COVIDSafe is a useful addition to existing disease management. People who say the App is
an affront to civil rights should note that COVID-19 is a notifiable disease and in any event, anyone who tests positive is required by law to undergo an interview with public health officials and account for their movements and people they have been in contact with. Penalties apply for not compliance.

In short, the App is just a tool (a very effective one at that) for carrying out existing public health law.
In any event, the App is much less intrusive than big foreign corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter, which are used by millions of Australians every day and collect far greater detail about users.

The extra privacy protections for the App were achieved under regulations to the Biosecurity Act 2015 by ministerial direction by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Legislation has now been drafted to replace those directions and will go before Parliament this month. Given that the Opposition supports the App, there is no danger of the ministerial direction being disallowed by either House of Parliament. And, there are further protections. The new law provides that misuse of information collected by the Australian government’s coronavirus App is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $63,000 fine.

Under the law, the collection, use or disclosure of information collected by the App is restricted to State and Federal public health authorities.

It is an offence to require a person to download or use the App; to refuse to sell goods and services, discriminate in employment, or block entry to public premises because a person has not downloaded the App. All the data must be deleted when the pandemic is declared over.
The law overrides all other law granting access to information. The national privacy regulator, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), will have oversight of COVIDSafe.
Moreover, all the protections under the Australian Privacy Principles enshrined in the Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Act 2012 also apply.

Critically, these restrict the use of any data collected for the purpose consented to by the App user. So, for example, the data cannot be used by general law-enforcement agencies; in civil lawsuits or by revenue authorities. It can only be used for tracing contacts under public health law in the various states.

Another principle is that the collection of the data must be proportional to the reason for collecting it. Given this is a deadly pandemic and downloading the App is voluntary, that test is easily meet.

In short, you owe it to all other Australians to download this App and keep it on.
That will go a long way to the lifting of more movement restrictions.


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