Police Chief Defends Accessing COVID Tracing App Data


Staff Writer

The Western Australian Government hurriedly introduced new legislation to strengthen the protection of information following a high-profile instance of police using data taken from the State’s SafeWA app to assist in a murder investigation.

Western Australia introduced the SafeWA contact tracing app in 2020. It has since been used 245 million times to check in at venues around the state. When introduced, it was clearly stated the app’s data was to be used solely for contact tracing purposes and should only be accessed by Western Australia health officials.

However, buried in the fine print was the ability for police to issue notices to hand over data. To date, Western Australia Police have used this power twice, serving warrants on the Western Australia Health Department, including when investigating the murder of a bikie.

Controversy now surrounds the privacy provisions of the mandatory app. As a result, the Western Australia Government introduced legislation on Tuesday to limit the use of the app and its data to infectious disease contact-tracing purposes only.

The new legislation is The Protection of Information (Entry Registration Information Relating to COVID-19 and Other Infectious Diseases) Bill 2021.

“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,” a media statement issued by the Western Australia Premier, Mark McGowan reads.

“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.”

The Western Australia Police have defended accessing data from the SafeWA app. Western Australia’s Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said police would use all available means to investigate serious crimes.

“Don’t expect me to do my job half baked,” he told a Perth radio station this week. Nonetheless, the police actions have caused concern in Western Australia, leading to the legislative response from the Government.

Perth QC Tom Percy says police accessing data from the SafeWA app is no different from accessing bank, phone, or CCTV data. The QC said anyone who believed their privacy was sacrosanct was living in a “dream world.”

“The fact that they could track people through the SafeWA app is no surprise to me whatsoever,” the QC told radio station 6PR.

“I think it’s unfortunate that he (the Premier) really coerced everyone into using the app on the basis that your privacy was never going to be infringed.”

Premier Mark McGowan reportedly asked the Police Commissioner to desist from using the SafeWA app in criminal investigations. However, the police declined to do so.

“We attempted to negotiate an agreement with the police. They advised that it was lawful, and they couldn’t not do things that are lawful,” Mr McGowan said this week.

Agreeing the new legislation was important, the Western Australia Opposition said criticised the rushed process and said the loophole should not have existed in the first place.