The federal government will ban law enforcement agencies from accessing metadata from the soon-to-be-released coronavirus contact tracing app, according to attorney-general Christian Porter.
Police could potentially access the app’s metadata without a warrant under various pieces of legislation including the Crimes Act and 2018 telecommunications laws, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have reported.
Porter told the papers “specific regulatory action” would be taken at the Commonwealth, state, and territory levels to prevent law enforcement agencies from accessing the metadata.
“The government has already made the decision not to make any information collected by the app available for other purposes, including law enforcement investigations,” he said.
Based on the app currently used to track the virus in Singapore — TraceTogether — Australia’s app uses Bluetooth to exchange information between users that are within 1.5 metres of each other, before logging and encrypting the contact.
If an app user is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can then download the log and send it to a central server, where it can be de-encrypted by their local health authority. Anyone who has been near that person will be contacted by the Department of Health .
Under the Crimes Act, police can access the contents of a potential criminal’s phone, as well as their metadata. Similarly, the telecommunications legislation passed in 2018 allows police who are investigating serious criminal offences to access metadata.
Metadata could also be seized under the Biosecurity Act and public health emergency laws passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Privacy experts have expressed concerns over a lack of information on what the app will collect.
On Wednesday Porter told 6PR Mornings the app would have privacy protections unlike anything seen before.
“In terms of the type of information that any of your listeners might consent to being provided commercially or to government, there will be no information in the system more safe and more private and more narrowly used for the specific health purpose than this information,” he said.
“So obviously, we want high, consented, voluntary take-up of the app. So we are going to have protections for the privacy and security information like nothing that there has ever been. It’ll be the most private and secure information that any one of your listeners would ever upload and used only for the purposes that I’ve just described.”
While the app is voluntary, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously argued at least 40% of the population would need to download the app for it to have a real impact and for restrictions to be eased.
Earlier this week, Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre chief executive Rachael Falk said she would be downloading the app after undertaking an independent assessment of the technology.
“I come from a position of fact, so I can talk about what I’ve seen so far. And so far, I’m comfortable with what I’ve seen,” she told ABC News.
“This is a public health app, it’s not a surveillance app,” she said.
The states and territories gave in-principle support for the app at the National Cabinet’s most recent meeting.