The imminent rollout of a digital COVID-19 vaccination certification risks becoming another government tech wreck, Labor and a number of digital rights advocates have warned, with concerns over the lack of consultation and privacy considerations.
The federal government revealed over the weekend that Australians would be able to access a proof of vaccination certification following a COVID-19 vaccine through the Express Plus Medicare app or the myGov app.
This will be completed through the existing Australian Immunisation Register (AIM), which includes history statements and proof of vaccinations.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said Australians would be able to show this certificate on a smartphone as proof they had received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Under legislation passed last week, it will be mandatory for people to record information on the register after receiving a vaccination. But getting the vaccination itself remains voluntary.
Services Australia has been working on preparing myGov and the Medicare apps for the important new functions for more than three months, and the department has also made “critical enhancements to the Australian Immunisation Register”, Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said.
“In preparation for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Services Australia has made critical enhancements to the Australian Immunisation Register including increasing system capacity so more customers can access their information on the register at the same time, new AIR functionality to capture more detailed information about vaccines given and updating immunisation history statements to show all COVID-19 vaccine doses,” Mr Jongen said.
“Australians can be assured the government takes the integrity of the Medicare system and the Australian Immunisation Register extremely seriously and has contemporary cybersecurity in place to protect people’s personal information.”
Digital rights advocates have expressed concern over the privacy of the highly sensitive health information that will be stored on a database, pointing to the government’s recent history of tech projects.
Electronic Frontiers Australia board member Justin Warren said more information is needed about the planned vaccination certificates, and the privacy safeguards being put in place.
“It feels rather rushed and there isn’t a lot of detail about what the actual end goals are here. What problem is being solved exactly? And why is this the right way to do it? It feels a lot like a repeat of COVIDSafe,” Mr Warren told InnovationAus.
“EFA is disappointed that the government tends to default to announcements about magic technology and dismisses legitimate concerns with vague platitudes about how secure and excellent it’ll be. Australians deserve better,” he said.
“We need to understand how this will work in practice, what the risks and benefits really are, and how this will affect those already being left behind: those without ready access to the technology needed to participate in modern life.
“The people who brought us robodebt and lengthy Centrelink queues need to spend a bit more time designing for abuse cases and not just use cases.”
Deakin University senior lecturer Dr Monique Mann said the government should conduct a privacy impact assessment on the vaccination certificates and consult widely with experts on the matter.
“There is a need to have some appropriate, robust discussion and to have some safeguards in place. Creating situations in which people are required to disclose information to access certain things means you’re going to need some safeguards, such as ensuring it’s proportionate,” Dr Mann told InnovationAus.
“We’ve seen all of these initiatives like COVIDSafe and the census, and this is not something that needs to be rushed, especially when sensitive health information is being stored and shared,” she said.
“We have to be incredibly careful when dealing with sensitive health information. In states of emergency, I would generally caution against new technologies or new apps being a silver bullet to the pandemic response.”
Speaking on ABC Radio National shadow social services minister Linda Burney said she supported the concept of a COVID-19 vaccine digital passport, but also raised concerns around privacy and the government’s tech capacity.
“I know there are issues around privacy that need to be considered…[and] when there is a proposal or legislation in front of Parliament, we’ll be looking at it very carefully. The government’s record on terms of digital applications is not a good reputation, in the sense of robodebt, in the sense of information about Medicare cards being available on the black web,” Ms Burney said.
“There are issues around the capacity of the government to be able to do this properly. And there are issues around privacy and issues around whether state governments and first ministers think it’s a good idea. But it’s important that there be the capacity for this to take place.
“I’m not confident in anything Stuart Robert says. The digital passport has to be secure, and the issue of personal information is probably the first priority that you want to be looking at.”