New South Wales resilience commissioner and former commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service Shane Fitzsimmons has assured the systems built by government to respond to crises — whether it is a natural disaster such as a bushfire, or the COVID-19 pandemic — are done so with the user’s trust in mind.

“In the government and public information space, we are absolutely invested in making sure that we are building systems that are virtuous, and absolutely with the intent of doing good and doing better for people. That is the core focus. Not to misuse and build a break in that trust contract,” he said, speaking during a roundtable on Tuesday.

Fitzsimmons pointed to how the NSW government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with the release of its contact tracing QR code check-in system, as an example.

“What we’ve been doing in the last 6-12 months in New South Wales alone, but as a nation, is having agile, up-to-date critically important websites and public-facing tools to give people the latest information and the updates on what they can’t do, what the restrictions are, where the progress is up to.

“It’s a government-sponsored QR code, so there is a trust element that goes to a trusted source of government.”

Read: Living with COVID-19 creates a privacy dilemma for us all

He acknowledged, however, there are always mixed views when it comes to trusting government around handling people’s data, particularly when it is compared to the trust people have for social media companies.

“In the last six to 12 months, the federal government rolled out the COVIDSafe app and there was this campaign of information of you can’t trust the government, you can’t trust them, what are they going to do with our information. But the irony was the people who were saying that were running their conversations on social media platforms. The irony was extraordinary,” he said.

“So, we are funny as human beings with what we think is a trust issue or not a trust issue with data.”

See also: Australia’s COVIDSafe contact tracing story is full of holes and we should worry

The public was not the only one that had trust issues leading up to the release of the COVIDSafe app. Former leader of the National Party Barnaby Joyce also voiced concerns that the app had the potential to be hacked.

In an effort to build public trust prior to its release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said no Commonwealth entity would have access to any data collected by the COVIDSafe app.

“The app only collects data and puts it into an encrypted national store, which can only be accessed by the states and territories,” he said at the time.

“The Commonwealth can’t access the data, no government agency at the Commonwealth level, not the tax office, not government services, not Centrelink, not Home Affairs, not Department of Education — the Commonwealth will have no access to that data.”

On Monday, according to findings made by the Victorian Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee, the effectiveness of the federal government’s COVIDSafe app for Victoria’s contact tracing efforts was insignificant. While analysis of the COVIDSafe app was outside the scope of the committee’s inquiry, it noted that no evidence was given to suggest that the app has been effective or contributed to supporting Victoria’s public health response.   

Related Coverage

  • Australian Committee calls for independent review of COVIDSafe app
  • Australians are caring more about data privacy but don’t know how to protect themselves
  • COVIDSafe legislation enters Parliament with a few added privacy safeguards
  • COVID-19 stalls Australia’s Data Availability and Transparency Act
  • COVIDSafe privacy report calls on state health bodies to comply with Privacy Act
  • Canberra has confidence in AWS’ ability to securely store COVID-19 tracing app data
  • COVIDSafe’s problems aren’t Google or Apple’s fault despite government claims