Australian police co-opted COVID-19 apps to fight crime

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The murder of biker boss Nick Martin on a highway in Perth, Australia, left police with a treasure trove of evidence that led them to the culprit: a thrill seeker turned gun for hire. But they wanted more.

The coronavirus pandemic provided it in the form of an electronic net: QR code registration data from contact-tracing apps of 2,439 fans who attended the December 2020 race. A government order requiring people to provide contact tracing information in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19 meant that anyone who checked in to the track that day left their name, phone number and arrival time via the SafeWA COVID-19 app or on paper. Police issued an “order to produce” the information to the state health department two days after Martin was shot and killed.

Police accessed the data despite Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan’s promise that the data would only be accessible to contact tracing staff.

“They have betrayed the trust of the public in Western Australia and they have let everyone down,” Mia Davies, leader of the state’s opposition National Party, said in a written statement accusing the government of failing to having legislated safeguards from the outset.

Western Australia Police did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Unable to negotiate a solution with the police, McGowan’s government eventually passed laws in June 2021 prohibiting law enforcement from accessing this QR data. Several other Australian states and territories have also introduced laws to prevent police from accessing contact tracing data.

Some critics blame Australia’s lack of privacy regulations for how police used information collected for a health emergency. Comparable countries – including New Zealand and the UK – have QR records that do not collect and host information about individuals’ whereabouts in central databases, said cryptographer Vanessa Teague, privacy researcher at the Australian National University.

An alternative is to store contact tracing data on people’s individual phones, so that the app user’s information is only accessible when they have been in close contact with someone whose COVID test -19 is positive.

Michelle Falstein, deputy secretary of the New South Wales Civil Liberties Council, said Australia’s Privacy Act 1988 was enacted before the internet was widely used and long before virtually everyone adult and adolescent citizens have a smart phone.

“Privacy by design is something that legislators or certainly government don’t think about in Australia,” Falstein said.

In Perth, it was not shown in court that the QR registration data used by the police had anything to do with the arrest of the murderer of Nick Martin, who has since pleaded guilty. Identified in court documents only by the initials BLJ, the shooter crawled through a hole in the fence and fled the same way, presumably avoiding the QR recording. His name is withheld by authorities because he is a cooperating witness against the man who he says hired him for the hit.

Ordinary cell phone data placed BLJ where ballistics experts calculated the bullet had been fired. CCTV showed him on the track earlier today wearing Fila running shoes similar to those that left footprints from the shooter’s point of view.

Further evidence fell into the hands of the police when BLJ took his rifle to a gunsmith to have the barrel replaced. The trader recorded the tampering in a firearms database, which quickly caught the attention of detectives. Police recovered the gunsmith’s original barrel and ballistics proved he fired the shot that killed Martin.

BLJ’s girlfriend also told police he admitted to committing the murder and has since pleaded guilty.

Contact the AP Global Investigation Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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