Chris Hipkins and David Seymour agree that police and other government agencies shouldn’t have sought access to contact tracing data, Marc Daalder reports

The Covid-19 Response Minister has said that contact tracing data “should only be used for the purpose of which it was collected”.

The comments came after Newsroom revealed that five government agencies have asked the Ministry of Health for access to contact details of inbound travellers for non-contact tracing purposes. One of those agencies, the New Zealand Police, also wanted to tap into the National Contact Tracing Solution, which encompasses all contact tracing activity in New Zealand.

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.

Chris Hipkins told Newsroom on Wednesday that police had helped with the contact tracing response but shouldn’t have asked for the data for any other purpose.

“I’m aware that the police have been supporting the contact tracing effort, where we haven’t been able to find people who we need for contact tracing. So that should be the only reason that they’d be accessing that information. It’s very clear that information should only be being used for the purpose of which it was collected.”

All of the incidents appear to pre-date a late November law change which bars contact tracing data from being used or disclosed for anything other than contact tracing or enforcing a Covid-19 order. Hipkins originally opposed such a law change, saying his word that the data would not be misused should be enough. At the same time, however, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) was asking after contact tracing data to be able to assist with Covid-19 modelling work.

“It underscores that the Government was not aware of the level of political risk that they were facing when they were saying that we’re not going to put these protections in place,” digital contact tracing expert Andrew Chen told Newsroom. Chen organised an open letter to Hipkins in September that made the case for the data protection provisions.

“We shouldn’t necessarily have to rely on the Ministry of Health just happening to have people who are very focused on privacy having to defend against these sorts of request.”

ACT Party leader David Seymour, who also pushed for stronger protections of contact tracing data, told Newsroom on Wednesday that the situation highlighted the need for considered lawmaking.

“We understand that the Government has been under great pressure throughout the Covid response, but a theme again and again is that the legislation and the rules are not ready ahead of time and they have to do patch ups,” he said.

“It is certainly important that they understand the importance of contact tracing data being secret. Otherwise people won’t participate, we can’t keep ahead of outbreaks and we all end up with longer lockdowns and more restrictions than we might otherwise have.”

Seymour also bashed the agencies for seeking to access the data in the first place and said it was important that the Ministry of Health refused those requests.

“If they start giving away contact tracing data for non-contact tracing purposes, they will vindicate the worst conspiracy theorists in New Zealand and we lose confidence in our whole public health response,” he said.

“I think those agencies should get back to doing their job and stop invading other New Zealanders’ privacy. I mean, come on. I can work it out, you can work it out, why can’t an organisation like the police understand that New Zealand’s privacy is actually extremely important?”

A police spokesperson told Newsroom on Tuesday that the department had asked for information on Covid-19 cases “on various occasions”.

“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 spokesperson said.

The Ministry of Health said it had also rebuffed requests from MBIE, Customs, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). Customs said it had no records of a formal request to access tracing data while documents released by the health department showed that DPMC and MFAT wanted access when the trans-Tasman bubble closed in July to understand the number of New Zealanders who might be trapped in Australia.

Chen said these were all requests made with good intent, but that it was crucial to keep contact tracing data private.

“I can see why the agencies might consider their requests to be reasonable,” he said.

However, he said, it would be difficult to anonymise the data and releasing individualised information might compromise the public health response.

“I’m overall glad that the Ministry of Health did refuse these requests in the absence of there being very clear guidance which we now have in the legislation. With that legislation, hopefully that will mean that everyone is very clear on what purposes this data can in fact be used for.”

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

Leave a comment