Privacy boffins call for legislated protections from coronavirus tracker app

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Privacy boffins call for legislated protections from coronavirus tracker app

Cautions against scope creep.

Australians should have a legislated right to be forgotten similar to EU citizens according to a location privacy expert concerned about the introduction of a contact tracing app designed to help contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Dr Mahmoud Elkhodr from Central Queensland University a series of safeguards will be needed to address privacy concerns while enabling healthcare authorities to effectively track the spread of the disease.

While the government has said it plans to release the source code of the app, Elkhodr says legislating citizens’ right to have their data erased should be at the top of the agenda.

“Perhaps the first measure the government should take to preserve the privacy of Australians is to draft legislation and implement features that allow them to simply delete their personal information.” he said in a statement.

“The government should also ensure that the application will not be used outside its intended scope i.e. penalising non-essential travel, tax audit purposes etc.”

“If the government decides to collect location information and then misuses this information to monitor the locations and movements of people, we will lose our rights to a private life.”

Graham Greenleaf, professor of law and information systems at the University of NSW, has similar concerns around the app and said all jurisdictions should guarantee the voluntary nature of the tracking app to prevent issues like scope creep and ensure the app and surrounding permissions can only be used to deal with the current emergency.

“Both the functioning of the app, and any centrally collected data, should be terminated when the state of emergency ends, or earlier if the jurisdiction’s chief medical officer decides that it is no longer a necessary and proportionate response to the pandemic,” Greenleaf wrote.

“Breaches of any of these privacy protections should involve significant criminal penalties and statutory damages.”

He added that the legislation should also work to ensure that the app is completely voluntary and doesn’t become ‘de facto compulsory’ or ‘pseudo voluntary’ and a necessary part of people’s excuse for leaving the house.

“Being required to take self-surveillance with you would give new meaning to the old Amex slogan ‘don’t leave home without it’.”

Such a scenario might arise if too few people sign up to the app for it to effectively identify potential points of transmission for the disease - a figure the Prime Minister has said needs to be around 40 percent of the population.

Singapore, where a similar app has been available for almost a month, has only achieved a 17 percent take-up, Greenleaf said.

Meanwhile, corporations developing yet other COVID-19 trackers estimate as many as 50 percent of people will need to be using the app for it to function properly.

Ultimately, Greenleaf believes the success of Australia’s responses to the disease has been driven by the public trust that these measures and sacrifices have been necessary.

“Governments now need to trust the continuation of public goodwill by demonstrating that its proposed contact tracing app is necessary and proportionate to Australia’s current situation, and if it is, by enacting comprehensive legal guarantees that its use is voluntary as promised.”

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