Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast ABC Radio National

20 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


FRAN KELLY:

Part of the plan to start easing some of the restrictions on our way of life is a new mobile phone app, designed to speed up tracing possible new cases of the virus. This tracking technology will collect private information such as names and telephone numbers. To help identify people who may have been exposed to the virus, but for the scheme to work,  about 40 per cent of Australians will be required to download this app, it's voluntary and the government's already running into some deep community resistance, even from some within its own ranks.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert is in charge of the rollout, Minister welcome to RN Breakfast.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Fran, how are you?

FRAN KELLY:

I'm very well thank you Minister, this app, brand new to people. Can you tell us exactly what information will be gathered and who will have access to it.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Absolutely, it's simply a digital way of doing a manual process. Right now, if you confirm positive to the virus health officials at a state level will sit down and ask you a bunch of questions about who you've been in close contact with, who were you next to, who were you near and we trust on memory. This is now digitizing it. So the app will simply ask for your name, a date range in terms of how old you are, your postcode and your mobile phone number. That’s it, it'll confirm that the mobile phone number is yours. And then the app will stay on your phone and as you get in close proximity to someone, let's say Fran you and I both ran the app together and if we were one and a half metres apart or closer for 15 minutes via Bluetooth, the app would grab each of our mobile phone numbers and names that would stay securely encrypted on your phone. And then if I was confirmed positive, my data goes up to a central data store, only to state health officials and no one else. And then they could rapidly call anyone I've been in close contact with. That way you’re protected and your family is protected.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay but the data that is pinged as we stand next to some 15 minutes that's stored on my phone, it doesn't go anywhere and this, I've voluntarily activated it and let someone know I've been declared positive?

MINISTER ROBERT:

That is right it says, stay on your phone, encrypted until you're positive, and then it will go to the national secure data store, no commonwealth agency will see it, no law enforcement will see it, there's no location geolocation or surveillance. It can only be used by a state health official. And at the very end of the pandemic, you just delete your app. I'll delete the national data store and I'll get full third party assurance on that. And all the data is gone.

FRAN KELLY:

So when you say no geolocation information, well, it will be a tracking device in the sense that it will have there, a record of where you've been tracked by where you've pinged with somebody else as the app so you will be able to track with someone's been.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Not at all. And this is really important, not at all. All it will tell me, is that you and I were, for 15 minutes or more, one and a half metres in proximity together. It won't tell us where, because that's irrelevant. Where is completely irrelevant. We don’t care where you are or what you are doing. All that matters is that we want to replicate your memory, when you're doing manually to the health officials to say, the people you're in contact with this simply digitizes your memory if you like.

FRAN KELLY:

But it will tell you who, and this is perhaps where the privacy concerns of some come in, because as you've told us it'll collect the contact information of people who've been within one half meters of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, just to be clear on that the infected person who stood behind you in a supermarket queue for just a few minutes, they might have sneezed or coughed on you. They won't be picked up by this app so if you've been in a supermarket, where we’re told you have to be really careful, but we won’t be near someone for 15 minutes in a supermarket queue.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Unless the queue is long like the Woollies I was at out on the weekend.

FRAN KELLY:

We'll even then you’re meant to be spaced out one and a half metre from someone.

MINISTER ROBERT:

That you are correct, you're supposed to be. That's right. So the current health advice of course is 15 minutes at one and a half metres and that's what the app is set at. And that's the setting it's designed to collect the contact information of people in proximity, and that's all it is and it’s stored on your phone, and it's only used by health officials if indeed you're positive.

FRAN KELLY:

But I'm actually saying that its value might be limited if you think about who you actually genuinely spend 15 minutes with it's mostly not random contacts is it.

MINISTER ROBERT:

No it's valuable will be extraordinary in terms of the data, because if we want to get back to work and back to the footy, and back to beach we need as the Prime Minister said to do more, more testing, more tracing and then of course contain any outbreaks and this is core to it. Absolutely core to it because it speed up a process would normally take days and days, it can take minutes so state health officials can rapidly contact people who may be at risk.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay, but still staying with this, if, if you only spend time with someone for less than 15 minutes, there's no way of tracking that would we not be better to go back to the old or stay with the current system, especially because cases of infections seem to be very low at the moment, the current tracing system is working but someone can say well I was at Woolies for the other day and you know they can try and work out when you might have been there and see if I can work out CCTV footage or whatever it is, whoever else was there, or even a diary an actual written diary, which is what the New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Adern is encouraging people to do.

MINISTER ROBERT:

And all of that remains in place. This simply augments the current manual system. But the idea of, Fran, that efficiently we can go to CCTV footage of every Woolies and Coles you may have been at in the last 10 days, as opposed to relying on tech to assist us. This app is not replacing a manual system it simply augments it. It's another bit of armoury in the storehouse of state health officials to assist us to get back to normal economic life.

FRAN KELLY:

Right so it's about speed, isn't it, it's about speed?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Right it is about speed and of course, manually, you might forget where you were your memory might not be as good as you thought it was. And you just might not know the details of the person next to you, or the family besides you.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay, the app’s value is limited if it's voluntary isn't it because researchers at Oxford looked into these apps and their conclusion was that 80 per cent of smartphone users in Britain would need to install it for it to be effective in suppressing an epidemic. The Australian Government's shooting for 40 per cent download of this app, which is currently in currently reactions seeming ambitious but is that going to be enough?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We'd certainly like everyone to download it, Fran. It is a big Team Australia moment so we can get back to normal economic life as soon as possible.

FRAN KELLY:

I am talking about effectiveness though what, what are the stats telling you?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The stats tell me, as that the Deputy Chief Medical Officer made the point two days ago, even a 1 per cent take up is better than a no percent take up. So yes, we'd love a huge number of Australians to embrace it, so we can get back to economic life as quickly as possible, but because this augments the current manual process doesn't replace it simply improves it augments it. Any take-up is better than none. We would love as many Australians as possible to really embrace this, so we can get the country moving.

FRAN KELLY:

Well this is pretty important though, isn't it to be clear because originally we were told we needed a 40 per cent take up for it to be effective, Australians, some of them are going to perhaps do it reluctantly but might do it as you say in the mood of Team Australia, but if they're going to do it and only 17 per cent sign up, and there's not really much use, you need to be upfront about that is 1 per cent really effective or as is 40 per cent?

MINISTER ROBERT:

This is a scale. Any digital take up to assist the current manual tracing effort is of great value, and the more Australians that take it up, the greater the value dividend becomes and the more effective, it becomes productivity, it's not a once or nothing it's a gradual slide forward.

FRAN KELLY:

Do you have a problem with Team Australia at the moment in the sense that Team Australia seems to be a bit wide, that this app is a surveillance device, how will you overcome community reluctance when it comes to handing over private information?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We've only been speaking for a few days about what this app looks like and remember, the private information we're requesting is only a name, a postcode, an age range and a mobile phone number. Goodness Fran if I go to the ABC website right now, you send 19 requests for data including 10 from Google, Facebook alone, before I even get to opt-in or out from your privacy policy. So all we are simply saying is to protect your health, and only for health officials to use and only for state health officials to use let's augment a manual process let's digitize that manual process, and it's designed to protect your family's health and designed to get the country moving quickly.

FRAN KELLY:

Exactly, but the arguments to protect your health was exactly the argument mounted by the Government over MyHealth and people were very wary about intrusting their private details to the government their health information is deeply personal it's closely guarded by people, and even some within your own ranks, say, no way, Barnaby Joyce, for instance.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Barnaby didn’t understand that there's no geolocation in this app because the app was going to trace his movements, and he didn't quite realize we're not interested in tracing any of your movements. And then the app doesn't actually trace, any of your movement, doesn't do any geolocation at all. It simply says you're in close proximity to this person who may or will be infected to allow state officials to quickly call you and quickly ascertain your health condition.

FRAN KELLY:

So you've spoken to Barnaby Joyce and he is going to download the app is he?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I am not sure what Barnaby is going to do and I'm sure he'll work it out and tell us all when he’s ready.

FRAN KELLY:

Only the relevant state authorities will be allowed to decrypt the information think that's what you told us. Is there gonna be any regulatory guarantee of that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We will actually produce the, the privacy impact statement and I will also produce the code. So we'll put the code up there so people can actually go forward and see for themselves we will be absolutely an utterly transparency in the code design and the privacy impact statement, and of course when the pandemic is done, you'll delete your, your app from your phone which deletes all the data, because the data is on your phone, and government will delete the central storehouse and we'll have independent third party assurance of that destruction.

FRAN KELLY:

But is there a regular guarantee or legislative guarantee this privacy structure?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well the privacy impact statement will actually outline all of that and will show exactly the data that's being used and how it's being used and of course the code being produced and available to everyone, you will be able to see that the privacy impact is indeed being followed.

FRAN KELLY

Now privacy experts want the information to be decentralised if all of this info is stored on one database somewhere in the cloud, it's inevitable someone will hack it and we've had hacking experiences and even, you know thought we've been hacked we hadn't been hacked but these things did happen when we were gathering the Census, for instance, you know, central servers are always a honeypot, what can you do about that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, for a start it is not inevitable it'll be hacked. Let me push back gently Fran against you on that. There'll be a central data store because data has got to go somewhere and then based on the postcode you put in, it'll be available with the state health authorities it gets very difficult if you start having multiple data stores. In fact, you may cause yourself a bigger problem. So this will go to one of the federal government's protected stores. It'll be encrypted on your phone in passage to the store encrypted in the store, and then only when the state health official pulls the data down for their state does the data become unencrypted. So the security concerns are alleviated the Australian Signals Directorate is going through the Australian Cyber Security Centre, and we've invited the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre to get industry involved in this to get the highest level of security assurance.

FRAN KELLY:

Just briefly Minister, the Prime Minister says the app will be voluntary could that change if we don't get an uptake say about 40 to 20 per cent?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We believe the Australian people want to get back to economic activity, get back to the beach get back to the footy as quickly as possible. And we think Australians will embrace it.

FRAN KELLY:

But that won't be mandatory ever.

MINISTER ROBERT:

It'll be voluntary.

FRAN KELLY:

Stuart Robert thank you very much for joining us,

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great to talk to you.

[ENDS]

Page last updated: 20 April 2020