Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Interview with Leon Byner, FiveAA Adelaide

16 April 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
Topics: 
Australian Government’s coronavirus contact tracing app
E&OE

LEON BYNER:

Minister Stuart Robert thank you for joining us today.

The Government is with Apple and Google's help getting an app which is going to be tracking people, and give very good surveillance, what's the purpose of this? And what's the upside for doing?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well first of all Leon, we're not working with Apple and Google. We're not tracking and we're not doing any surveillance at all. So let’s start this interview right from the facts.

We currently, if someone contracts the coronavirus or COVID-19 virus, we go through a manual tracing process to ask them who have they been close to, so we can contact them to see if they've got any symptoms and encourage them to get tested.

All we are now we are going to do is to digitise that tracing capacity, very similar to what Singapore has done. That is the intent of it.

LEON BYNER:

How will that happen? With an app?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Yes we will have an app though we’re some weeks away from it. Although it's in the final stages of a Privacy Impact Assessment, with very strong cyber security assistance with Australian Cyber Security Centre, and the Australian Signals Directorate.

But it works quite simply. So if I've got the COVID trace app on my phone, and Leon you have as well and for whatever reason we are one and a half meters apart for more than 15 minutes, the phones will exchange mobile numbers in a highly encrypted form. And wherever I go if spend 15 minutes with someone one and half meters away it'll also pull their phone number if they're running the app and store it on a rolling 21 days.

Now if I test positive for the virus, I would consent to say I’ve tested positive and those 21 days’ worth of mobile numbers, securely held on the phone, that I can’t see, will go to health professionals, and health professionals in the states and territories will contact those people.

So you’d get a medical directory in South Australia calling saying “Leon a number of days ago, you were in close proximity to someone with the COVID-19 virus for more than 15 minutes can you come in for a test.”

So we are just digitally replicating a manual tracing process.

LEON BYNER:

Now this app at the moment is not available, when it is it has to be physically downloaded onto a phone?

MINISTER ROBERT:

That's correct. The intent is it will be downloaded from the Apple or Google Store. And that you would consent to use it and you would have it running.

And really what we want is if we are going to replace a manual tracing capability with an app based one. We would like a whole bunch of Australians as many as possible to download it knowing full well that the strongest privacy is involved, the strongest security, no one can see any numbers, and all it is doing is replicating a manual tracing process.

LEON BYNER:

So basically if you're out and let’s say you’re shopping or something like that. And you are in proximity of someone else for more than a quarter of an hour, that information will exchange mobiles and go to a central data point?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Let’s use me and a 92 year old lady in the shopping centre, it is a really great example.

The 92 year old woman and I are in the shopping centre and we are both running the COVID trace app and we are in close proximity for 15 minutes because we are waiting in the queue. So our mobile phone numbers would swap securely. Neither phone can see them. Neither phone would know as it is highly encrypted.

And if either of us are positive to the virus that series of numbers, the 21 days’ worth of pulled phone numbers will go to the health professionals so they could contact anyone who is in close proximity.

So say if I got the virus, I don’t know the name of the 92 year old – so I if sat down and did the manual process with health professionals I couldn’t remember her name. But this way they can call her directly. Get her to come in to be tested and potentially save her life. 

So it puts a manual process on a digital footing, very quickly.

LEON BYNER:

Now what is the other side of this because it's been widely reported across the national media that by doing this kind of technology, which is far more intrusive, it will give authorities the ability of being, or lifting if you like, some of the restrictions that we're facing because of the coronavirus.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well I will leave that to the National Cabinet to make those determinations. But there is no question that using this sort of tech, and it’s not that intrusive, remember it simply replaces a manual process with a very fast digital process. But it absolutely would allow greater freedom of action because if there are people with the virus in close proximity to others health professionals can rapidly be contacted and then rapidly contact people that the infected person has been in contact with.

So it certainly gives a lot of flexibility to decision makers in the National Cabinet. But it would require a large take up of the country, which I think would be wonderful. Singapore’s been using it and this is heavily modelled and what they’ve done. Singapore's got 20% of the nation using this technology I’d like to see at least 40%.

LEON BYNER:

Alright so presumably they'll be somewhat of a blitz in advertising to get this happening to get people to download the app when it's available.

MINISTER ROBERT:

I’m the tech owner, so remember this is one of a suite of tech measures we’re using. We’ve got the COVID information app, we’ve got Australia.gov.au, we’ve got the Whatsapp channel, we’re developing a Facebook Messenger channel should Government wish to use that, we’ve massively enhanced MyGov. So there's a whole suite of digital channels we've developed for Government.

Health is the owner of the data, Health is the user of the data, and all the great health restrictions and prescriptions we currently have. So Health will be determining all of that.

LEON BYNER:

So when are we likely to have the app? A couple of weeks, do you have a date? A time?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well that’s up to National Cabinet of course. Because they’re driving the entire national effort and should be. But they will have options for them in a couple of weeks. Absolutely.

LEON BYNER:

All right, Stuart Robert thank you for explaining, and good luck to you.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Thanks Leon, anytime, cheers.

Page last updated: 16 July 2020