Australia: Covid-19 app lacks transparency as siren-equipped drones monitor social distancing

On April 3, a coalition of civil liberties groups involving the Human Rights Law Centre, Digital Rights Watch, Access Now and the Centre for Responsible Technologies wrote a joint letter to the Minister for Health Greg Hunt seeking clarification on the specific design, operation, intention and privacy and data protection safeguards of the country’s then pending Covid-19 contact-tracing app.

On April 26, the Australian government launched the centralised COVIDSafe app.

Promoting the app on social media on May 2, the Health Minister tweeted a link to the app with the message: “Want to go to the footy? Download the app”

On the same day the same coalition of civil liberties groups called on the government to do three things: publish the source code, not only for the app, but the entire system at the Government’s end; provide independent oversight and public reporting of all uses of the data; and pass legislation to prevent the possibility of police and intelligence agencies accessing data from a user’s phone.

Functionality issues

Within hours of its launch, members of Australia’s tech and privacy community highlighted serious privacy and functionality issues with the app. Concerns were specifically raised about re-identification and tracking.

The HRLC was particularly concerned about how data collected via the app was being stored by the government and with whom it was being shared. 

As of May 29, more than six million people, or a quarter of the population had reportedly downloaded the app. However, there have since been reports that the app will now be abandoned.

A second Covid-related surveillance issue in Australia is the use of siren-equipped drones, primarily in Western Australia, to monitor social distancing in beaches, parks and other public areas.

HRLC is carrying out a surveillance mapping exercise across Australia and monitoring the use of number plate recognition technology, facial recognition technology and AI by State and Federal law enforcement.

Pic: Australian Government Department of Health/Perth Now

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