Government virus app uses some location data, groups raise concerns

More than 500,000 Australians have downloaded the government's coronavirus app, but human rights advocates are concerned about what it means for users' privacy and security and there is confusion within the government over who is responsible for it.

The coronavirus app was released in lightning speed last week, along with a chat-bot that allows people to ask questions and get information through WhatsApp, and allows people to register if they are isolating due to returned travel or contact with a confirmed case.

A coalition of organisations including the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australia Institute's Centre for Responsible Technology, Digital Rights Watch and Access Now, has written to Health Minister Greg Hunt asking for clarification about what data is collected by the app, how it is used and how it is protected.

The letter called for additional safeguards and a clear vision for the use of exceptional measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, acknowledging "unintended negative consequences" could come from the use of the app without protections.

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A list of seven questions has been put to the minister, asking what data is being collected, for what purpose and what third parties are able to access the data.

Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre Alice Drury said she had concerns about the implications for privacy, as well as the possibility government apps could create a "honeypot" for hackers.

"It's worth remembering this information isn't just your address, it's increasingly sensitive and increasingly significant," Ms Drury said.

An app developed by the Singaporean government to track contacts of confirmed coronavirus cases by using bluetooth connection features was fast-tracked for review by the Australian government, but officials said the current Australian app did not have that capability.

Ms Drury said it was possible to balance health outcomes with privacy .

"There's no reason to say that you can't use technology to stop the spread of coronavirus in a way that doesn't turn it into surveillance."

A spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt originally said questions about data and metadata on the app should be directed to Home Affairs, which then directed questions to the Digital Transformation Agency.

Eventually a spokeswoman for the Health Minister said the app had been designed to provide information about the virus, the latest updates and health advice.

"It does not include contact tracking functionality," she said.

"The app allows citizens to voluntarily register that they are isolating. A low precision location is collected at the time of registration to gain insights into community behaviour to influence government's health service response and improve service delivery."

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The apps are available for free through the App Store for Apple devices and Google Play for Android devices.

To activate the Whatsapp channel, users have been told to visit aus.gov.au/whatsapp to launch the new feature.

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This story Government virus app uses some location data, groups raise concerns first appeared on The Canberra Times.