Both the Privacy Commissioner and the Productivity Commission have cautioned the Government against adopting the CovidCard project without doing its due diligence. Screenshot from CovidCard pitch document.

Both the Privacy Commissioner and the Productivity Commission have cautioned the Government against adopting the CovidCard project without doing its due diligence, Marc Daalder reports

Top Government advisors have urged caution on the CovidCard scheme.

On Tuesday, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards and the Productivity Commission’s principal advisor Dave Heatley published separate blog posts warning that the proposal to spend $100 million issuing every New Zealander with a Bluetooth-enabled CovidCard wasn’t bulletproof.

“I agree that the NZ COVID Tracer app has been a flop. But there is a significant chance that CovidCard could flop just as spectacularly,” Heatley wrote.

Heatley raised concerns around the way in which NZ COVID Tracer and CovidCard had been developed and pitched, saying “both are ‘skunkworks’ projects, developed out of the public eye and reflect deep (and untested) assumptions about what the public will, and will not, accept”.

“In other countries, the design and adoption of COVID-tracing apps has been the subject of much public debate. While some of that debate is poorly informed, much is intelligent. Public debate has informed decisions about the overall approach and spurred improvements in privacy protection and software performance. It has also helped to build public trust in the apps,” he wrote.

The CovidCard plan would require a centralised database linking each individual card to a person’s contact details and personal information, Heatley said.

“Unauthorised or malicious use of this data would have significant, perhaps severe, privacy consequences for some New Zealanders.”

Heatley also shared a prime concern of Edwards’ – that the CovidCard could not be easily updated with new software.

“The CovidCard would be designed based on what we know today and we would be stuck with that for a year with no ability to adapt or change or learn from the experience of other countries, or of how the card operates in New Zealand,” Edwards wrote in his own blog post. As Privacy Commissioner, Edwards has received briefings on the CovidCard since March and said the idea has essentially not changed since then.

He also worried that the CovidCard’s backers want the Government and private sector to effectively mandate its use. Sam Morgan, one of the project’s prime backers, said as much in an opinion piece for Newsroom last week.

“CovidCard is not necessarily a slam dunk. You need to believe that New Zealand can achieve widespread usage. Achieving that might ultimately require a degree of mandating in places of congregation,” Morgan wrote.

To Edwards, this signals the need for a new legal framework and poses ethical and human rights questions.

“How is this to be enforced? Are people to be stopped by Police and asked to show their card? Must they be able to prove it is theirs? What will be the penalty for being in public without the card?” he asked.

“What happens when you’ve left your card in your other jacket when you go to the supermarket or restaurant? Will cash-strapped small businesses really exclude paying customers when there is no evidence of community spread of the disease, just because they do not have their CovidCard? Should they? What happens when people lose their Card? Are they condemned to social and commercial exclusion until a replacement can be issued? Or will they borrow someone else’s? Will a black market in counterfeit CovidCards develop for those who don’t wish to or can’t use the real thing?”

Edwards also said the card might not be up to snuff technically. Few details have been released concerning the project’s performance in live tests. A pitch document obtained by Newsroom revealed that the card was trialled twice – once at Nelson Hospital in early May, as Newsroom previously reported, and once in the Waikato, later in May.

This latter trial “simulated common interactions across a range of scenarios including an office environment, a cafe/restaurant, a construction site, taxi/Uber trips and a house party/social function,” the document states.

Over the two trials, 90.3 percent of close contacts – defined as being within two metres of someone for 15 minutes or longer – were successfully recorded by the CovidCard, according to the document. Information on the false positive rate was less certain, but the document’s authors state they think it could be reduced to 10 percent.

However, Edwards indicated that tests were not as promising as the document makes out.

“The promoters of the CovidCard have tested their technology and it still faces challenges,” he wrote.

“The exchange of Bluetooth IDs will not work well unless the card is on a lanyard around the wearer’s neck. It might not be as effective in a pocket with a phone. It probably won’t work in a handbag. No testing has been done to determine whether a widely diverse population will wear the card routinely in a compliant fashion.”

Ultimately, both Heatley and Edwards acknowledged that the CovidCard idea deserves to be explored more fully. However, they both cautioned against interpreting it as some form of silver bullet.

“From a cost/benefit perspective, how much more effective could the existing manual contact tracing process become if the CovidCard’s $100 million price ticket was invested in enhancing and improving those resources?” Edwards asked.

“The CovidCard proposal is now in front of Government. It has an impressive list of backers,” Heatley wrote.

“But CovidCard is not the only option, nor is it clearly the best. A quick, transparent and public decision-making process at this point would best serve New Zealand.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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