Australia’s COVID-19 tracing app has privacy rules that Australia rejected in the draft Digital Economy Agreement with Singapore

April 30, 2020: Australia’s Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has issued a directive about the new COVID-19 tracing app to reassure users that their privacy will be protected, and their data will not be abused.

The government claims that the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) Determination 2020, Section 7 states that the data must be stored in Australia.

The government has also promised to reveal the source code for the tracing app, so that it could be examined by IT privacy experts, but this has been delayed for two weeks.

These assurances, while welcome, contradict commitments in the summary of the recently-concluded Singapore-Australia Digital Economy Agreement. The summary is consistent with the demands of Big Tech companies for the free flow of data across borders, that governments cannot require that data be stored locally, and cannot require that source code be shared. The agreement was reached in secret between October 2019 and March 2020. The full text of the agreement will not be public until after it is signed, some time in the next two months.

This deregulatory approach which allows global companies to transfer data overseas and to forbid scrutiny of their source code has been enshrined in a trade agreement despite the recommendations of the ACCC Report into digital platforms which recommended more, not less, regulation of such companies to protect consumer privacy. AFTINET has criticised this approach.

This begs the question: Why is the government promising that data from the COVID-19 tracing app must be stored in Australia and source code must be made public to protect privacy, when it has just concluded a legally-binding trade agreement which enables global companies to store data overseas and keep source code secret? How will it reconcile the clash between the two?

Surely the same privacy protections the government is promising for the COVID-19 tracing app should apply to all future digital technology applications. This should mean that the text of the Singapore agreement should be changed if needed and that similar contradictory commitments should be excluded from other digital trade negotiations, such as the WTO plurilateral e-commerce negotiations in which Australia is playing a leading role.