Coronavirus: Govt might start tracking phones if people don't stay home - privacy expert

The Government has powers under legislation drafted in the wake of the Christchurch quakes to strip back Kiwis' privacy rights during a state of emergency. Photo credit: Getty

Privacy campaigners are warning the Government might require Kiwis to install software on their phones to help them track movement during the COVID-19 pandemic, if people keep flouting the rules.

New Zealand is currently at pandemic alert level 4, the highest on the current scale. People are required to stay home as much as possible, limit non-essential travel and stay local when they do have to leave the house.

This way the virus - which has killed nearly 70,000 people worldwide - won't be able to spread quickly here, enabling our health system to handle the cases that do emerge. 

Privacy Foundation chair Gehan Gunasekara said the Government has powers under legislation drafted in the wake of the Christchurch quakes to strip back Kiwis' privacy rights during a state of emergency. A state of emergency was declared by Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi on March 25, the same day we went to alert level 4.

"New Zealand is not in a normal situation at the moment. So people need to recognise that normal legal rights, such as privacy, need to be put on hold up to a point," Gunasekara - also a law lecturer at the University of Auckland - told Newshub.

"But of course once the crisis is over, we think that normal protections will once again apply." 

Data released by Google over the weekend collected by users of its Android phone operating system showed Kiwis were doing well at obeying lockdown orders by international standards. There was a 91 percent drop in non-essential travel by Kiwis, Google measured, compared to only 47 percent in the US, where the virus is running rampant and expected to kill tens of thousands of people. 

But Android has about a 57 percent market share here - low compared to most countries - and only those who have Location History turned on contribute data. Gunasekara said the Government might require Kiwis to install its own tracking software. 

"Consent is always best practise if you can get it - [but] if someone is non-compliant, in our view the legal power now exists to require somebody to install an app on their phone and have it on all the time so they can be monitored."

The 2013 law was "very widely drafted", he said.

"It says you can collect any information that's related to tackling the emergency. They can make [people] install it - they can say 'you have to'. That power is there."

But the suspension of "niceties" would only be temporary, he says.

"This is a time of great national emergency, it's a time of crisis, and we just want the public to know while privacy is an important value, there are times such as this when people need to come together and cooperate. 

"If they don't cooperate, then the power exists to essentially allow the authorities to gather whatever information they need, and they don't need consent for that."

Even during the emergency, authorities would be limited to using the information only for tackling the crisis - nothing else.

"The police can't do anything they want with that information. They couldn't  for example install some other app that's going to keep you under permanent surveillance even after the emergency ends. That would be illegal. They couldn't do that. 

"So it's proportionate, it's necessary, and we just wanted to make the point that there there's a clear need and a clear and present danger, privacy rights are obviously overwritten by the needs of the community as a whole."

The alternative is, of course, that Kiwis follow the guidelines and stay at home as much as possible. Other countries have resorted to extreme measures like nightly curfews and making entire days off-limits for going outside.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday said there were no plans to tighten restrictions on movement here just yet.

"This is as tight as it gets."

Newshub has contacted Civil Defence and police to ask if there are any plans in place for such an app.