Laws rushed through through the Western Australian parliament on Tuesday have been designed to bolster protections for data obtained through the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing system.
A joint statement issued by WA premier Mark McGowan, attorney general John Quigley and health minister Roger Cook said that law enforcement authorities accessed citizen data from the SafeWA app twice since it was launched in November last year.
The latest police data access was a for a ‘high profile’ investigation into an alleged murder and stabbing.
The state leaders said that although police accessing the data was lawful, the system was not designed for any purpose other than contact tracing.
“The system was introduced in the middle of the global pandemic and while access to this information was lawful, the WA Government’s intention was for contact registers to only be used for contact tracing purposes,” the statement read.
“This new legislation strengthens this commitment and guarantees individuals’ information collected through contact tracing tools to be used for one reason and one reason only — contact tracing.”
According to WA state opposition leader Mia Davies, citizen trust in the system has been let down. She has called for the government to answer how long it has known that law enforcement could access SafeWA data.
Premier McGowan noted that being able to rely on the contact register system was one of the best chances the state had to fight the spread of COVID-19. He said he was committed to ensuring the information collected on the register was better protected.
“Our priority is to protect the health of Western Australians and our actions have kept WA one of the safest places in the world,” McGowan said.
“We only have to look at previous cases here in WA, and outbreaks in other jurisdictions to see how critical contact registers are in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and the severity of restrictions and lockdowns.”
The Protection of Information (Entry Registration Information Relating to COVID-19 and Other Infectious Diseases) Bill 2021 was introduced to parliament on Tuesday.
The new legislation will limit any use and disclosure of information obtained as part of contact tracing data collection through the SafeWA app for health purposes only. Police and the Corruption and Crime Commission will no longer be able to access the data.
Commercial use of information collected for contact tracing or through SafeWA app was already banned and the new laws do affect this.
For information collected manually (ie with written details provided using pen and paper rather than through the app), the amendments will also require businesses to confidentiality and securely store the information, and then destroy it after 28 days. Business owners that fail to comply with these requirements can face up to a year’s imprisonment or a $20,000 fine. Corporations face two-years imprisonment and fines up to $250,000.
“Existing requirements make it mandatory for businesses to securely keep contact details for at least 28 days, store information confidentially and securely, and ensure information is not easily disclosed to other patrons,” Quigley said.
“While we know businesses are already doing the right thing, this legislation formalises these requirements. It strikes an appropriate balance without compromising standard business practices and will not be overly burdensome.”