Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020

I rise to support this bill, the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020, and to commend the government for their timely rolling out of these protective measures that are supporting the good outcomes that we have seen so far in our fight against the coronavirus. I think we in this country can take pride in having established a record of firsts when it comes to taking action against the virus. 

We were one of the first countries to restrict travel from Wuhan, and China, where the disease originated. There was some controversy when we did that. Some believe that that was an overreaction, but it has proved to be incredibly wise and prescient of us to have taken that action. Likewise, it was followed up with further restrictions on travel as the disease spread to other countries in the world. Obviously, we took extremely serious actions to shut down businesses and reduce the risk to Australians—some of the first in the world—particularly given the scope and scale of the virus at the time that we took those actions. And here we are today discussing the use of an app in Australia which has been rolled out and has already been out there for a few weeks, and we're one of the first Western countries in the world to have this technology up and running. I do recognise that some other countries, like Singapore, have had this app ready to go. It's technology they had in place, given their experience with SARS and previous pandemics, but the Australian government has been very quick to see what worked around the world and adopt those technologies for the benefit and health of Australians as soon as possible.

This app is designed to be one of the measures we are taking to reduce the risk of coronavirus, and it's going to become even more important as we take the essential steps to open up our economy and to help people get back on their feet, get back into their job and reopen their business to the extent they can. What will become extremely important in that environment is our ability to test for and trace and suppress outbreaks of the virus that almost inevitably will occur from time to time.

I want to pay tribute to our health authorities that are already doing tracing, or were doing tracing pre the COVIDSafe app, for their performance and their work. It's a laborious and intensive process, and I do commend the health authorities for what they have done. And, even without this technology, they've done a remarkable job in quickly getting on top of outbreaks, be they in aged-care homes or, more recently, in the abattoir in Melbourne. Those frontline workers deserve our enormous gratitude. Their systems are working well but they are not fail-safe systems; they do rely incredibly on the goodwill and cooperation of people who are infected—and their memory. As we know, one of the risks with this virus is its long incubation period compared to other coronaviruses or flus, and that means those that are infected have to go back a long period of time, up to 14 days, and try to remember who they had close contact with, for following up all those potential cases. That's obviously not a foolproof process. Technology can help and assist here, and that's what this app is all about.

I want to put it on the record that I do understand the concerns that some have expressed around privacy. I do understand that those concerns are elevated when data is being provided to governments. Even though the Australian government will not itself access this data, it's being provided, potentially, to state and territory government authorities—which I will come to. I completely understand the concerns about data provided in that way. It has to be well managed, protected and regulated. That's what we're doing here in this bill, and I support that.

I also support the rights of Australians not to download the app. Although I have encouraged and do encourage Australians to do so—and I will get to the reasons why I think it's important to do so, even for your own purposes—I do want to say that we should respect those who have a different view. We are very fortunate to be a free and open society where we tolerate differences of opinions, and, as I said, there are legitimate concerns there, but, on balance, I think they are being protected rightly, and we should download this app. But, if that is not the view of some Australians, I respect that and I think their decision should be respected.

Notwithstanding that, we have seen, of course, millions of Australians taking action to download the app. I welcome that and encourage more to do so. I do so because I think this app is of incredible importance to the individual, to the person themselves, not just to protect the community. If I were to be infected—and I hope that I won't be, but if I were to be infected—I'd want to provide information to authorities about who I'd been in close contact with in the previous 14 days. I'd want to be able to cooperate. And I think most Australians would. This technology can be a tool to help you do that, because it is difficult to remember where you've been and what you've done two weeks before. So having a piece of technology that helps record that effectively for you, automatically, I think is of enormous advantage.

I use other apps, like Google Maps, which provide data, information, to a third party. I use them because I don't want to go back to the world of the UBD—it's a lot easier to use apps like Google Maps. There's also great benefit in using social media to connect with other people. You do give up some data there, but you get a corresponding benefit. Likewise, here, yes, the data, the information, is potentially provided, if you're infected, but you get a corresponding benefit in terms of being able to help and assist our frontline health workers, who are doing the best they can in difficult environments. As I said earlier, we should be supporting those Australians who are out there on the front line of our health system, and this app helps support them.

It's not our only tool, of course, but the fact that the government has been able to roll it out so quickly is imperative. I do want to get to the fact that we're strongly protecting the data in this app, and doing so here with this legislation today. I think it's important to stress, as other speakers have, that, while the app is on your phone collecting data, the data is only stored on your phone for that period before you may be infected. The data is not recording location or where you've been; all that it's recording is simply bluetooth interactions with other phones that have the app that are in close proximity to you at the time. It makes a record of those over time, and only if you then choose does the data get uploaded to the state and territory authorities who can access it to help with their test and trace activities. So you'd only choose to do that if you had to provide that information, which would be in the event of you having been infected and being asked to track and trace back who you had been in contact with. So you control the data. You control it. You don't lose control of the data by just downloading the app. You only upload the data when and if you're in that situation of having to help our health authorities, and I think that's a well-designed feature which should be widely advertised.

As we've outlined in this bill, we're making sure we put added protections in place to ensure the information can only be used for the purposes of testing and tracing for the COVID-19 virus. That was outlined in a regulation made by Greg Hunt when the app was launched a few weeks ago. What we're doing today is enshrining those protections in legislation. I don't believe protections of this nature have been used before, but it shows the seriousness with which we're fighting this virus that we are enshrining specifically in law that the information collected here can only be used for these purposes and no others. And penalties will apply if people are using the information for other reasons.

I'll finish where I started: we have been able to achieve the remarkable reduction in coronavirus cases because we have been taking first steps—because we have been moving ahead of the curve, so to speak. The rollout of this app is another example of where we are doing that. I'd encourage all Australians to do it. I commend the government for getting it out so quickly and for the protections they're enshrining in law today.

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