Protecting your Data during COVID-19 – Your Privacy Matters

As I write this column and think about the extra weeks of economic hardship still ahead for many Kiwi businesses in the Auckland region during Level 3 and across Level 2 in the rest of New Zealand. I am finalising a proposed Member’s Bill to tackle the significant privacy harms that are becoming clear stemming from contact tracing data misuse by both the Government and those collecting it. Whether we like it or not, the continued bio-surveillance of New Zealand remains a necessary evil still to fight COVID-19 for managing and attempting the prevention of outbreaks. However, we should expect and frankly demand that any data captured by the Crown and businesses alike be held securely.

Our personal movements, our interactions and our lives have been under the microscope for over a year with every pub visit, dental appointment, supermarket shop or catch-up with friends now being required to be recorded for utilisation by the State.  As New Zealanders, the majority of us have given the Government the requisite social license for this decision to help fight COVID-19. However, this license is going to be at serious risk if, like in other countries, the Government moves beyond using this data for just the COVID-19 response. Serious and concerning questions arise as to whether this data, a treasure trove of people movements, business information and human interaction, should be accessible by the Government or even the people of New Zealand at large for wider societal use.

From law enforcement support to information regarding the most active store fronts in each community it is clear the COVID-19 contact tracing information, particularly as recorded through the App, could give insights into our country the Government never thought possible. It could help solve crimes and assist in long-term planning for infrastructure and the economy.

And that is a problem.

We, the people of New Zealand have not consented or been consulted on these hypothetical potential uses, and, as I suspect, many New Zealanders would never consent to the long term mass surveillance and tracking of the individual in our liberal democracy.

Here are some other hypotheticals I could see being considered across the wide ranging complexity of Government:

  • Do we want Police and other law enforcement to be able to use tracing data for the purposes of law enforcement (outside of COVID) and potentially for its use as evidence in Court; if so, what limitations should be applied?
  • Do we want NZTA and regional public transportation services to have access to aggregate data for the purposes of long term transport policy planning particularly in preparations for Level 3 situations where traffic congestion became a serious issue in many parts of New Zealand with clusters of takeaway and fast-food drive through services?
  • Should Stats NZ have access to anonymised scan data that it could aggregate and then publicly publish (ie most scanned locations in each region) as a matter of public interest?

  • Could tracer-stored data be ordered by a Judge as evidence for the purposes of a civil or criminal case (ie proving grounds for divorce or a parent’s suitability in a custody case or proof of a person being in a particular building at a particular time)?

I’m concerned, as are many other politicians, academics and lawyers around New Zealand, regarding the potential for the misuse and exploitation of this information by the Government for it’s own gain and, if you look through the names attached to this open letter, you’ll even see the Government’s favoured media proxies telling them to sort this out now.

I and the National Caucus will not wait for Chris Hipkins to finish dragging his feet months from now to backtrack on his view he won’t intervene. I’m pretty confident even if they put up proposals they won’t be fit for purpose. So, I am drafting a Member’s Bill to tackle this issue head on and hope, albeit with some scepticism, that I can garner the numbers in Parliament or have the luck of the Member’s Ballot draw to get this legislation passed for your data privacy rights and freedoms to be enshrined in the ongoing COVID-19 response.

Despite privacy laws, freedoms and rights being more important than ever in global history the simple reality is we are now sharing far more of our personal information, conversations and movements online and in ways rife for exploitation than could have been conceived when the concepts of free speech and expression were first debated in the ancient Acropolis, Indian Sangha’s and other early attempts at democracy of ages past.

We have to be vigilant and unwavering in the view that our privacy, our data sovereignty and our lives are our own and not something for all and sundry to see unless we specifically sign up to that future. There is no social license for the expansion of COVID-19 contact tracing information to be used by other government purposes any more than we have given it to those people stalking by stealing numbers from sign-in forms for the purpose of sexually harassing other patrons.

Bluntly, the Government misusing our data can be just as scary and humiliating as any cyber stalker.

Once the Bill is in the ballot I will have written to every one of my Parliamentary Colleagues to get them on board; I’m not holding my breath it’ll get adopted as legislation but I hope the Opposition and maybe even a few concerned Government members can unite with a clear message your data and your privacy does matter. I encourage you to also write to your local MP and demand the Government put in place these important data privacy laws.

In the meantime - keep safe everyone and for those in Auckland like me I hope you all finally get to enjoy the long blacks, pizzas, poppadums’ and pies you’ve all been forced to wait for so long. It’s still a long road ahead but we are here for you.

Go on and enjoy the slight liberties available under ‘Threedom’!


Note: This Column was first published on Indian Newslink and The BFD