Five government departments have requested access to information about Covid cases and the Ministry of Health has refused each one, Marc Daalder reports
Police sought access to contact tracing data from the Ministry of Health “on various occasions” in order to place alerts on addresses where Covid-19 cases were isolating.
Information released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act shows the health ministry had to rebuff requests from five government departments to access digital contact tracing data.
Correspondence provided as part of the response reveals the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment all hoped to use contact tracing data registered by people entering the country to help with the Covid-19 response.
A spokesperson for the Police said they wanted to use the data to be able to warn police staff who might visit homes with active Covid-19 cases.
“On various occasions Police have sought information from the Ministry of Health regarding Covid-positive cases in our community,” the spokesperson said.
“The information sought was for the purpose of placing temporary alerts on addresses associated with those cases, so that any Police staff called to those addresses would be aware of the need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent exposure to Covid-19. The information was not able to be provided.”
The health ministry also said Customs wanted to access this data, but a spokesperson for Customs said it had no records of a formal request.
“We are seeking further clarification from the Ministry of Health in this matter,” the spokesperson said.
“Customs did support the Ministry of Health with contact tracing in March 2020 to identify people with Covid-19 and those who may have been in close proximity with them. This involved sharing information that was open source or from our own systems.”
The requests from MFAT and DPMC occurred in July when the trans-Tasman bubble closed. Officials at those departments hoped “to do daily assessments that contribute to government understanding how many New Zealanders are in Australia that may wish to return, and how many of those, have returned, as well as related topics”. To do this, they needed information from the Nau Mai Rā system, which contains contact details for everyone who enters the country in the event they need to be contact traced.
Chrystal O’Connor, the health ministry’s manager for contact tracing, said in the OIA response that MBIE also wanted data from Nau Mai Rā. But the correspondence shows the request from MBIE in September sought access to the National Contact Tracing Solution (NCTS), which encompasses all contact tracing activity in New Zealand, not just the details of inbound travellers.
MBIE wanted the information to help with modelling the spread of Covid-19, the emails show.
O’Connor also said police and Customs both expressed interest in accessing Nau Mai Rā data and police also asked about NCTS data.
Neither of the databases include information from the NZ COVID Tracer app, which stores all scanning and Bluetooth data on the user’s phone alone.
New protections for contact tracing data were passed into law in November after an open letter was signed by civil society and health experts. The provision bars personal information that was collected for contact tracing from being used or disclosed for anything other than contact tracing or enforcing a Covid-19 order.
“Contact tracing is a crucial tool in our response to Covid-19, and the collection of information to support contact tracing processes should be encouraged. The potential for misuse of that information may dissuade people from participating, and therefore could negatively impact contact tracing and our ability to respond to the current and future outbreaks,” the open letter stated.
The letter came after Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins backtracked on protecting the data. In a February letter to digital contact tracing expert Andrew Chen, Hipkins had said existing protections were “not complete”. But when he mandated scanning QR codes or manually signing in at most venues in August, Hipkins said the protections in legislation were sufficient.
It wasn’t until the open letter pushed for greater protections, and every party in Parliament other than Labour backed the call, that Hipkins conceded. The changes were passed as part of a Covid-19 law in November.