Australian health ministers have been told to bolster the privacy protections behind home quarantine apps that use facial recognition and geolocation technology before making them commonplace.
In an open letter, the Human Rights Law Centre and Digital Rights Watch urged the adoption of stronger safeguards around the use and management of personal data, including biometric information, being collected as part of tec hnology trials.
Both groups backed using technology to support the transition from mandatory hotel quarantine to home quarantine, but say preventing the misuse of personal information through robust safeguards is essential.
“Unprecedented steps to gather and temporarily store personal information may be necessary to respond to the pandemic, however, such exceptional measures must come with robust safeguards,” the letter [pdf] reads.
“In particular, we are concerned that while much effort was made to ensure the legislation governing the COVIDSafe app had appropriate privacy protections, the same efforts have not been put in place for other technological approaches to managing Covid-19.
“Failure to implement proper privacy safeguards create a significant risk that the social licence for such policies will be undermined.
"Trust in government and digital tools used by government in the context of the pandemic is paramount to the success of these policy approaches.”
While the concerns extend to both the collection of personal information as part of QR code check-in process we have all become accustomed to, much of the concern centres on the use of facial recognition in home quarantine app trials.
South Australia became the first state or territory to pilot an app that uses facial verification technology and geolocation to confirm a person’s location during a stay of home quarantine in August.
The app, called Home Quarantine SA, requires participants of the trial to confirm that they have not left their registered home quarantine address at various intervals throughout the day by performing a live face check.
NSW also recently began using the SA government’s technology as part of its home quarantine trial through an app called Home Quarantine NSW, while Victoria is piloting similar technology, though it is not clear who is providing the solution.
The rights groups said the “use of facial recognition technology to confirm an individual’s location is an extreme measure”, noting widespread calls, including by the Australian Human Rights Commission, for a ban on government use of biometrics until appropriate regulations are in place.
“In Australia, there is no such regulation to ensure that the use of facial recognition technology is necessary, proportionate and protects human rights in its application,” the letter reads.
The groups are also concerned about the facial recognition technology failing to recognise “the faces of those with darker skin tones” more generally, which could create “unreasonable technical barriers” for users.
“It is unacceptable to subject individuals to the consequence of not meeting requirements to ‘check in’ if they are unable to do so as a result of the technology exhibiting racial bias,” the letter reads.
The groups similarly expressed alarm at the privacy statement for the SA app, which indicates that information collected will only be “destroyed at the conclusion of the Covid-19 pandemic unless required for enforcement purposes for any alleged breach of a [Covid-19] direction”.
“Without robust and specific protections in place, the information collected by home quarantine apps may later be used for secondary purposes unrelated to public health,” the letter said, adding that these risks ultimately undermine future support and compliance.
The groups have recommended the COVIDSafe app laws serve as guidance for all future IT solutions used to help manage Covid-19, and that limits are placed on the collection of data and that linkage with other data is prohibited.