back to article Western Australia rushes out legislation after cops access contact-tracing data to investigate serious crimes

Police accessed COVID tracking QR check-in data to investigate a murder, causing the state of Western Australia (WA) to introduce urgent legislation in Parliament today. The app collecting the data, SafeWA, is free, mandatory, and has been used over 245 million times for people to register their presence at relevant venues in …

  1. Phil Kingston

    They were always going to stuff this up. App deleted. I'll put my phone number on the paper sheet at each venue if I remember.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Paper sheet

      So that anyone walking by can potentially record your details….

      1. IGotOut Silver badge

        Re: Paper sheet

        It's easier to fake an address.

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Paper sheet

        Possibly so they can write it illegibly or accidentally make a mistake. Tracking systems like this don't record who is near someone, so they're blunt tools for tracing possible infection paths.

    2. mewoch

      You let that app in?

      "But, while GenVis will exercise reasonable care, GenVis is not responsible for any loss as a result of your use, or your inability to use, SafeWA. This includes any loss, damage, cost or expense, including loss of profits or income, loss or denial of opportunity, loss of use and loss of data."

      https://safewa.health.wa.gov.au/privacy

      For something that's deliberately tracking me, I want someone to take responsibility for the data security.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Im shocked, shocked

    obligatory shocked shocked:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjbPi00k_ME

  3. Winkypop Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Not shocked

    As a Western Australian I have to give the WA Government top marks for keeping Covid infection numbers near zero.

    But defo not shocked by the predicted over reach.

    1. john.jones.name
      Mushroom

      WA gov incompetance

      the WA government proved themselves incompetent when they went with a checkin that was not private

      the testing rates are terrible and so it spreads and no one is aware...

      They could have stood up and used this on apple and google

      https://covid19.apple.com/contacttracing combined with a private QR check in log that only gets sent when requested

      oh I dont know much like New Zealand... so WA gov is worse than NZ...

      let that sink in...

  4. ShadowSystems

    How's that work?

    "You must install this app on your SmartPhone." falls flat if the user isn't using a SmartPhone. If the previous poster was correct in that a manual listing of one's phone number on a sign in sheet is also available then I can see how it could work, albeit in a much less timely fashion.

    1. Phil Kingston

      Re: How's that work?

      Yep each venue is required to have paper sign-in sheet. Using that or the app is mandatory. Although it doesn't seem many people are doing it. You put a name and a phone number on the sheet. If there's a positive case known to have visited there then the track and trace team get the sheets from the venue and contact the possible contacts from it.

      Kinda like Foursquare was, but with more at stake.

    2. Rockets

      Re: How's that work?

      Correct, there's a paper register. Also the app can let you sign in multiple people. My dad has a Nokia flip feature phone but my mum has a iPhone so when they go somewhere together my mum scans the QR code and selects my dad as a companion in the app. Kids under 16 aren't required to sign in any where.

  5. Woodnag Silver badge

    data is encrypted and stored for 28 days

    Curious... was the data grab for info older than 28 days? In which case the over-reach was always on the cards, because the transiency promise was breached too.

  6. Drew Scriver

    Fool me once...

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice - shame on me.

    The shocking thing is not that the government overreached. It's that people still believe the government when they promise that they won't overreach.

    1. Snake Silver badge

      Re: Fool me once...

      Statement applied to a billboard as a subtle reminder...

      We all knew that this was going to happen. It was low-hanging fruit. The ability for the plod to dive into data and statistics before any penalty involved could be created?

      Where do we sign??!

      It's not that we don't mostly trust government. The problem is that everyone forgets that the government is US - we get the government we voted for, the government we deserve. And, when you vote for poor quality candidates, based upon your match to to single-interest topics...

      Stop voting for nepotism, greed and ego, you morons! [speaking to the general, under-educated population)

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Fool me once...

        Unless you have the skills, ability, time and money to get elected, the only power you have is the choice at the ballot box. Most of us are lucky if we have even one of the attributes.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Fool me once...

      "The shocking thing is not that the government overreached. "

      In the absence of further evidence, ie I only have the article to go on, the WA government have not over-reached. They did what many governments have done around the world. They rushed through some legislation without thoroughly thinking it through (as per usual, even in normal circumstances). Then the local plod used a loophole to access the data. Now the WA Gov. is strengthening the legislation so that can't happen again. On the face of it, it sounds like they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, albeit a bit late in the day. But show me the government that is capable of crossing all the t;s and dotting all the i's on the first go around and I'll show you a unicorn. :-)

      1. Falmari Silver badge

        Re: Fool me once...

        @John Brown (no body) That was my take from the article. They rushed through the contact tracing in the understandable attempt to reduce the impact of the virus. But in that rush did not put required protections in. Having seen their mistakes are now adding in those protections.

        Taking the article at face value I would give them the benefit of the doubt. To me it looks like a rush (painc) to protect life and not thinking of the privacy implications. They got it wrong but it does not look like an intentional grab for tracking data for use by law enforcement.

  7. mevets Bronze badge

    The Who

    "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me... you can't get fooled again." GWB. I miss that guy.

  8. Eclectic Man Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

    The WA government should just be honest and think through the uses of contact tracing data that would be appropriate and accepted by the public. If a very serious crime is committed, in the above cases a murder and a stabbing, does anyone genuinely believe that the police would not seek as much information as to who was around at the time? After all the whole point of the tracing app is that it helps to save lives by allowing the Covid-19 virus to be contained effectively. Suppose someone who was in a restaurant was later diagnosed with scarlet fever or typhus - both notifiable diseases (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/notifiable-diseases-and-causative-organisms-how-to-report#list-of-notifiable-diseases) should Covid-19 contact data not be used? Had I potentially been exposed to such diseases I'd want to know.

    The reaction looks to me like political panic rather than a sensible attitude to preservation of life. I realise that I may be biassed in this:

    One night, after I'd been to Pride in London and had a rather agreeable time there. I was walking up a well-lit street in the centre of town when I was accosted by a youth who called me a "queer c**t" and then threatened to stab me. (Fortunately he was not carrying a knife or he would not have bothered to speak.). Had I been stabbed and there had been a tracing app available at that time, I'm fairly sure I'd have wanted everyone in the vicinity traced and questioned by the police.

    And we are just coming up to the first anniversary of my friends David and Stephen being stabbed in the Forbury Gardens on 20th June 2020. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Reading_stabbings) Stephen survived, David died of a single stab wound. Still feeling very sad about this.

    I realise this may be contentious, and that personal privacy issues are important, so any comments and mature discussion welcome.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Years ago ...

      The Americans used infant vaccinations in Pakistan as a cover for DNA tests to find Osama bin Laden through his children. They were warned at the time that this would have consequences. Today people in Pakistan are refusing COVID vaccinations.

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: Years ago ...

        Are you equating the covert use of a fake vaccination programme devised purely to find bin Laden* to the overt use of COVID-19 tracing data to help find a murderer wandering around Western Australia? Unless you believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is 'fake news' there is little to no equivalence. There is no reason to take DNA samples to vaccinate someone, preventing the spread of Covid-19 is an essential public health activity.

        Lets have a debate about the permissible uses of Covid-19 tracing data, rather than about the CIA's more dubious and illegal activities.

        *https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/11/cia-fake-vaccinations-osama-bin-ladens-dna

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: Years ago ...

          As is blindingly obvious from my previous comment I do not think COVID is fake news. Unless you are arguing in really bad faith there is a direct equivalence between the CIA's illegal fake vaccination program and the illegal use of COVID tracking data for anything other than tracking COVID.

          The CIA's past actions are causing people to refuse COVID vaccinations and that may result in more deaths than Osama caused.

          WA police using COVID tracking data will cause some people to falsify COVID tracking data. This will cause them to not be informed of potential infection, not get tested and not self isolate. This could easily increase infection to the point where it causes more extra deaths than the hunted murderers.

          Diseases kill far more people than criminals.

          1. SCP

            Re: Years ago ...

            Just as a point of order - the WA police use was legal. The issue is whether it was right or proper. I would agree with an argument that it was not right as the T&T was set up for a particular purpose and appealed to the public's sense of civic duty to declare their presence and movements rather than preserve their privacy. The police's data grab violated that trust and will have similar consequences as the CIA action in that in the future the public will be less likely to support "worthy" initiatives because they now mistrust the government. Similar issues have arisen in the past when police have misused powers granted to them for the prevention of terrorism.

            As much as the capture of serious criminals is desirable, the rules limiting police powers on searches and "grabbing evidence" are a balance between that and the rights of individuals. They are there to serve society as a whole - even if it does mean there are hard cases where natural justice appears to be confounded.

            1. tfewster Silver badge
              Facepalm

              Re: Years ago ...

              > the WA police use was legal...

              I'm curious about how it was deemed to be legal under Australian law.

              - At one extreme you can liken it to CCTV installed for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime. I wouldn't expect police to need a warrant to view or take a copy of the recordings under that purpose.

              - At the other extreme, it's data collected for medical purposes and so is subject to doctor-patient confidentiality.

              - At least, a judge should have been required to issue a "warrant" for the data grab and repurposing.

          2. Eclectic Man Silver badge

            Re: Years ago ...

            Flocke Kroes:

            Initial post above: "The Americans used infant vaccinations in Pakistan as a cover for DNA tests to find Osama bin Laden through his children. "

            Which implies it was a genuine vaccination programme rather than, as you now accept: "the CIA's illegal fake vaccination program"

            Thanks for admitting that, although you could apologise for the confusion caused.

            Please could you explain why you equate (that is claim a "direct equivalence") a fake and illegal vaccination programme with a genuine health emergency(FK: "there is a direct equivalence between the CIA's illegal fake vaccination program and the illegal use of COVID tracking data for anything other than tracking COVID.")

            FK: "Unless you are arguing in really bad faith"

            No actually I'm not, I am genuinely interested in "mature discussion" of this. As I pointed out, "I realise that I may be biassed in this", has anyone ever seriously threatened to stab you when you were alone walking up a street late at night? Have any of your friends been killed by stabbing in broad daylight? (See my first post.)

            FK: "WA police using COVID tracking data will cause some people to falsify COVID tracking data. This will cause them to not be informed of potential infection, not get tested and not self isolate. This could easily increase infection to the point where it causes more extra deaths than the hunted murderers.

            Diseases kill far more people than criminals."

            Which is why I suggested in my opening sentence "The WA government should just be honest and think through the uses of contact tracing data that would be appropriate and accepted by the public."

            Let me repeat that in capitals in case you missed it:

            "THINK THROUGH THE USES OF CONTACT TRACING DATA THAT WOULD BE APPROPRIATE AND ACCEPTED BY THE PUBLIC."

            So please, could you explain your aversion to thinking about what uses of Covid-19 tracing data would be appropriate and accepted by the public as I am confused by what I take to be your considerable hostility to even thinking about it?

            1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Re: Years ago ...

              what uses of Covid-19 tracing data would be appropriate

              Tracing COVID-19. Full stop. No other use is appropriate.

              Personally, I have grave doubts about the utility of contact tracing for combating COVID-19. But if governments are going to insist on it, then its application must be restricted to that purpose alone, for reasons both political – the erosion of civil rights is a far greater harm – and practical – people will subvert the tracing mechanism if (when) it's being abused.

              And, yes, I've been threatened by people with knives. And people with guns, for that matter. That doesn't affect the ethical calculus a whit, because I'm capable of thinking critically.

        2. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Years ago ...

          The parallel is not exact but is worth some consideration. The issue with the CIA's action in Pakistan, at least the issue right now, is that people are refusing vaccination because they don't trust those authorities who provide it and say it is needed. A similar loss of trust elsewhere may cause a similar backlash. I.E. Western Australian citizens think the app is only there to track their movements without reason and refuse to install it, actively attempt to break it, or launch an organized protest (I think each of those actions would be justified in such a situation). This would destroy any benefit of the app.

          Not only would you not have the data for police investigations, you wouldn't have it for health investigations either. Worse, building trust takes a lifetime and destroying it takes a week. Even if you don't care about this app, the next thing a mistrusted government says is necessary may be distrusted and opposed because the last time it was used unethically. That could be anything. In Pakistan, it's a COVID jab which means we may soon see an Epsilon variant stemming from a breach of trust over a decade old. In WA's case, nobody knows what it could be. All I know is that you probably don't want to find out in 2029 that people won't do what the WA government says is needed because they don't trust them.

          The response to this pandemic and most other societal problems relies on trusting authorities. Where the authorities are trusted to tell the truth, act in the best interests of the people, and be beholden to their wishes, you get stability. Where that trust is eroded, you get risk. Where the trust is flaky, you get dictatorship. Where trust has vanished, you get civil war. It is the responsibility of authorities to maintain that trust by following understandable ethical rules.

    2. Woodnag Silver badge

      serious crime

      In UK the definition of serious crime degraded enough to allow councils to surveil what people were putting in their rubbish vs recycling bins.

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: serious crime

        This is sort of true. In the UK a 'serious crime' is one where you can go to prison for 2 or more years on first offence with no previous convictions. Which is also why I wrote "very serious crime".

    3. MrDamage

      Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

      > "The reaction looks to me like political panic rather than a sensible attitude to preservation of life."

      Really? They make an app mandatory, the police use it for purposes that people did not agree to, and restricting the loophole used is a "panic move"?

      I get that you were in a bad situation, but the outcome of that situation is not for you to demand everyone have mandatory tracking devices on their phones. If you want a feeling of security, take self defence lessons, lobby for more police resources, do something, but do not demand we live in a police state where they can demand "papers please", just because of a few dickwads.

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

        MrDamage:

        "They make an app mandatory, the police use it for purposes that people did not agree to, and restricting the loophole used is a "panic move"?"

        "but do not demand we live in a police state where they can demand "papers please", just because of a few dickwads."

        The article was about police using data to catch a murder and someone who stabbed someone. To refer to them as "a few dickwads" is in very bad taste. I suggested they consider what would be sensible and accepted by the public, or did you not read that bit of my post? The point of the tracing app is to save lives, so is catching murderers. Think about it.

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

          There are criminals out there, and successfully investigating them is the police's job. That's important. However, there are very good reasons we restrict what police can do. Many powers we could give to police because a lot of them are interested in helping all of us are powers which would be very easy to abuse, so we either restrict them (warrants required for searches) or make them entirely illegal (torture a suspect for information).

          A mandatory tracking system is an extreme thing, and it only exists because there is a health emergency. If it was an effective tracking system (I doubt its usefulness), then it's important that people remain confident that it won't be abused. Which is worse: a murderer remains on the run a bit longer because police had to use the powers they already had to catch them, but people remain uninfected or the murderer is caught a little sooner (assumes the data is actually useful) and people get infected because they mistrust the app and refuse to use it? I don't have a perfect answer for this, but not only do you have to consider the negative consequences of giving a very invasive tool to the police but you also have to consider the loss of the beneficial effects of the app if any exist.

          1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

            Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

            doublelayer: "A mandatory tracking system is an extreme thing, and it only exists because there is a health emergency.

            Which is worse: a murderer remains on the run a bit longer because police had to use the powers they already had to catch them, but people remain uninfected or the murderer is caught a little sooner (assumes the data is actually useful) and people get infected because they mistrust the app and refuse to use it? I don't have a perfect answer for this, but not only do you have to consider the negative consequences of giving a very invasive tool to the police but you also have to consider the loss of the beneficial effects of the app if any exist."

            EM: "I realise this may be contentious, and that personal privacy issues are important, so any comments and mature discussion welcome."

            I'm glad we agree.

            1. SCP

              Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

              A quick bit of googling (so the numbers might be slightly off) - Australia has about 910 COVID deaths and has an annual murder figure of around 222. Of those murders only a fraction of the cases would be likely to be assisted by or depend on T&T data. So avoiding the COVID deaths seems to be the more important thing to achieve.

              It is also seems to be the case that the data grab by the police would not be limited to "serious crimes". If they have a legal means of getting it they could subpoena it for any crime. At what point will you feel aggrieved if the police are questioning you about your presence at a place.

              1. TheMeerkat Bronze badge

                Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

                Australia is only postponing inevitable.

        2. Mark 65

          Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

          Eclectic Man: A bit of simple reading comprehension needs to be applied before you post. They were responding to the OP's statement about being threatened on the way home from a pride march and how they could have been stabbed, then how they would have wanted the police to have access to any information necessary... In this context the poster is correct that we shouldn't live in a police state just because of a few dickwads. The dickwads being a reference to the random that made the threat not anyone in the original article. FFS.

    4. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

      You misunderstand why the tracking data must be inaccessible to the police...

      The reason isn't to protect the privacy of the users - all of us, I am sure, would completely agree that that privacy should be breached (with appropriate court orders, of course) to investigate very serious crime.

      The reason is to protect all of us from Covid. The whole track and trace process becomes ineffective if people do not cooperate and provide tracking information. That includes people who, for whatever reason, do not want the police or government from knowing who they are or where they are (criminals and others), We, the innocent bystanders, are better protected if people believe the data will not be accessed even under the most extreme circumstances - that will encourage a higher proportion of visitors to provide accurate contact data.

      If the police access the data, even in an extreme case, then every minor criminal, drug dealer, etc will make sure they don't provide valid contact details. If some of them have Covid then public health loses.

      This is nothing to do with "privacy: - it is just to do with public health.

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

        Thanks for a clear and reasoned point.

        But I do wonder whether criminals who are going about their unlawful business would use their genuine details anyway. Not just criminals, but people who need to work so avoid getting tested to make sure they don't have to self-isolate: I recently had an email from someone who said he'd 'probably' had Covid as he'd been feeling very ill for the past week. He did not mention being tested, and was still at work.

        And, of course, some people still believe that Covid-19 is 'fake news' and refuse to wear face masks, and probably avoid tracing data whenever they can.

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Maybe a sense of proportion is needed

        I partially disagree. Your core point is important and I've made a similar one, but I take exception to this part:

        "The reason isn't to protect the privacy of the users - all of us, I am sure, would completely agree that that privacy should be breached (with appropriate court orders, of course) to investigate very serious crime."

        In general, yes it should. With a mandatory tracking system, no it shouldn't. I wouldn't have agreed to have a mandatory tracking system forced on everybody by a court order before, and that reality doesn't change now that there is a system in existence. It would have been unacceptable in 2019 if they decided that, for public safety, they wanted a log of everyone's position. It is not acceptable in 2021 either.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not the first, won't be the last...

    WA police: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Singapore got there first: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55541001

    1. FILE_ID.DIZ Bronze badge
      Flame

      Re: Not the first, won't be the last...

      Not that this would ever happen in the US - mandatory tracking application on a smart phone. We can't even get a decent subset of the population to want prove if they got a shot or not... I say, be proud of your choice vaccinated or not vaccinated, no reason to hide! The virus always knows, and that's all that matters. :)

      But if that were to happen or if I were to travel to a country like Singapore where a tracking app is compulsory.... I'll go out and buy a phone that doesn't run Android or iOS, like an old-style flip phone and wag my slightly libertarian middle fingers in the air.

      Bonus nachos... I'll probably get longer talk and standby times to boot by dumping my SE2 iPhone - the talk time is fucking miserable.

      1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

        Re: Not the first, won't be the last...

        I am in the UK, not the US, but... I am pleased and proud to be vaccinated. I am very happy to tell anyone who asks that I am vaccinated. However, I refuse to carry some sort of card or app to prove that, For two reasons:

        1. I refuse to be forced to carry ID, or to identify myself on demand. I have explained why in various other posts so won't waste time here but I regard the right to be anonymous as a basic human right and, in particular, a basic British freedom.

        2. I refuse to allow businesses, venues or people I deal with to discriminate against people who are not vaccinated. I wouldn't do business with anyone who refuses to do business with people based on their religious beliefs and I apply the same principle to vaccination decisions. Anyone who refuses to be vaccinated is an idiot - but that is their right. As long as the country achieves high vaccination rates then we don't need everyone to be vaccinated.

        I do acknowledge that other countries have the right to refuse entry to unvaccinated people so I will carry some form of "vaccine passport" for international travel. But it must not be legal within the UK to discriminate based on vaccination status.

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