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Downloading the COVIDSafe app saves lives

Today in Parliament I thanked nearly 6 million Australians who have downloaded the COVIDSafe app and called on all Australians to do so. My speech is below.

Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (10:48):  It’s my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020, a bill that I commend to the Senate. I’m pleased to see bipartisan support for the bill. This is the first time I have spoken in the Senate since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. I want to place on record first and foremost my thanks to the Australian people. The response to the pandemic has been extraordinary. The ability of the Australian people to stand up, to listen to the government, to listen to the professional medical advice, to listen to our frontline health workers and to respond as they have has been incredible. We have seen a dramatic flattening of the curve. I think most Australians would be very, very proud of how our nation has performed, particularly when you consider what is happening overseas in some countries. I also want to thank the nearly six million Australians who have downloaded the COVIDSafe app. We know that this is not a be-all and end-all but an important tool to slow the spread of the virus. Of course, this bill is all about making sure that there are appropriate health protections.

I also want to pay tribute to the Prime Minister and to his leadership team, particularly Senator Cormann; the Treasurer, Mr Frydenberg; and the health minister, Mr Hunt. The measures that our government have put in place in response to the pandemic have been overwhelmingly positively received by the Australian people. In saying that, I also acknowledge the role of the national cabinet, which I think has been very important as well. Our government is all about making sure that we save lives and livelihoods. Whether it’s the jobseeker payment, JobKeeper, the stimulus payments we’re providing, the early release of super, the cash flow boost, the government backed loans, the childcare fee relief, the health response, telehealth, our domestic violence response or our response with 100 new respiratory clinics, right across the health sector, I think all Australians can be very, very proud of the work of the national cabinet, including, of course, the work of our government.

I also want to acknowledge and say thank you to our frontline health workers—our doctors, nurses, cleaners and paramedics—and those who work on the frontline in our economy at the moment, in our supermarkets, our pharmacies, our cafes and our restaurants. The restrictions have been very, very difficult. We are seeing an easing of those restrictions. As I said, Australians have responded absolutely magnificently to the challenge, and I do very much acknowledge the incredible effort of all Australians.

This bill is all about protecting the privacy of Australians. We have reiterated and made clear how important it is to download the COVIDSafe app. As the Prime Minister has said, it’s a bit like putting on sunscreen when you go out in the sun. It gives us protection as a nation. It is the ticket to ensuring that we can actually ease our restrictions. The COVIDSafe app is an important public health initiative that will keep you, your family and our community safe from further spread of coronavirus. It is all about speeding up contact tracing. Public health officials, of course, are doing a magnificent job, when there is a positive diagnosis, of identifying those who have come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed positively, but the COVIDSafe app speeds up the process. That’s why it is so important for as many Australians as possible to download the app.

The app uses bluetooth to look for other phones, like a bluetooth handshake. There is no way that someone’s location can be recorded, so it’s very, very limited in its use. It only keeps contact information for 21 days, and this covers the maximum incubation period for the virus and the time it takes for someone to be tested for COVID-19. To be effective, users should have the app running in the back ground when coming into contact with others. The phone does not need to be unlocked for the app to work, but the bluetooth does need to be activated. It then securely makes a digital handshake, which notes the date and time, the distance and the duration of the contact. All information collected by the app is securely encrypted and stored in the app on the user’s phone. No-one, not even the user, can access this information. Unless and until a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, no contact information collected in the app is disclosed or able to be accessed.

There are very, very strong privacy measures already in place with the app. There have been a number of amendments that have also been accepted, and they are to ensure that there are strong ongoing and further privacy protections to support the download, use and eventual decommissioning of the Australian government’s COVIDSafe mobile application. Very briefly, the key additional protections which have been included are that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner will have oversight of the COVIDSafe app data. The Information Commissioner can manage complaints about mishandling of the COVIDSafe data and conduct assessments relating to the maintenance and handling of that data. The Privacy Act’s Notifiable Data Breaches Scheme will be extended to apply to COVIDSafe data. There will be clarification of the interaction between the powers and obligations of the Information Commissioner in relation to COVIDSafe data with the powers of state and territory privacy regulators and the Australian Federal Police. The administrator of the national COVIDSafe data store will delete users’ registration data upon request. An individual will be required to delete COVIDSafe data if they receive it in error. No data can be collected from users who have chosen to delete the COVIDSafe app. A process will also be put in place for COVIDSafe data to be deleted at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and users will be notified accordingly. The amendments also make changes to some of the language used in the Biosecurity Act determination in order to better match the language and the structure of the Privacy Act. A couple of other technical changes which ensure the workability of the amendments will be included. It’s now clearer that penalties do not inadvertently apply to individuals, businesses or agencies who only collect COVIDSafe app data incidentally to the collection of non-COVIDSafe app data, such as backing up mobile devices. In essence, we have been very receptive to some of the concerns that have been raised in relation to the privacy of the COVIDSafe app.

I would like to finish my contribution by again calling on all Australians to please download the app. It is incredibly important. Of course it doesn’t replace all of the other health advice which is so important—the social distancing, maintaining a space of at least 1.5 metres from anyone else, essentially acting as if people that we come into contact with actually have the virus to minimise the spread of the virus, the hand washing, and all of the other critical health advice which has been provided. If we can speed up that contact tracing through the app, this will of course ensure that we can mitigate the risk and minimise the spread of the virus. Again, I want to say thank you to the Australian people for everything this nation has done to slow the spread of the virus and to respond so magnificently to this pandemic. I commend this bill to the Senate.

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