US access to COVID-19 app data ‘not conceivable’, inquiry told

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday May 7, 2020

Adobe

Health officials across Australia are still unable to access data collected by the federal government’s coronavirus contact tracing app, a senate inquiry has heard.

Attorney-General’s Department deputy secretary Sarah Chidgey on Wednesday told the Senate committee overseeing the commonwealth’s COVID-19 response that the government’s decision to bar law enforcement agencies from accessing app data was “very unusual”.

US company Amazon Web Services has been paid more than $700,000 to manage the app’s central data store. The information is being stored in AWS servers in Australia.

When asked whether data could be accessed under US cloud computing laws, Chidgey said it was “not conceivable”, but did not rule it out entirely.

“We can’t give complete guarantees about foreign laws,” she said.

She revealed the government had received legal advice from the Australian government solicitor on the issue, but it was privileged and would not be made public.

The government on Monday released draft legislation outlining data protections for the app, including up to five years in prison for those who attempt to access or use the data for any reason other than contact tracing.

By Wednesday the app had been downloaded 5.1 million times.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said the government was aiming for at least 40% of the population to download the app, with take-up of the app being one of 15 conditions set by national cabinet for lifting restrictions.

Acting health secretary Caroline Edwards told the inquiry the department hadn’t advised national cabinet on any download targets.

Health officials also admitted that while the app has been collecting data, the states and territories cannot access the information until the necessary privacy agreements are in place. Edwards said the agreements should be in place by the end of this week.

Digital Transformation Agency chief executive officer Randall Brugeaud said the app’s source code would also be released in the next week.

He admitted there have been issues with the app — which cost $1.5 million to develop — for iPhone devices, but not Androids.

“The performance we accept is variable while we use the app on phones which are locked and that will be improved in subsequent releases,” he said.

“I cannot provide a view that the app will work 100% of the time with all handsets where the devices are locked.”

Brugeaud noted a Bluetooth update from Apple in the coming weeks would likely improve the app’s performance.

“Our option was to wait until every feature was running perfectly and deliver a solution in six or 12 months’ time,” he said.

“Our focus has been privacy, security, performance. The Bluetooth performance that we have in Australia with our contact tracing is as good as anywhere in the world.”

The app would continue to collect data in rural and remote areas even where phone reception is poor, the inquiry heard.

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