South Australian authorities have admitted to using phone metadata in order to track the movements of a couple infected with coronavirus after seeing South Korean officials do the same.
The state's Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said the system was usually reserved for criminal investigations but the public safety concern made this case an exception, according to an ABC report.
"We're doing that to assist SA Health in tracking down the movements of the two people concerned so we can do our best to identify any people who might have been exposed [to coronavirus]," he told the ABC.
"In this case, we think there's a genuine risk to public safety, and certainly there's community concern about this, so it's one of the occasions we elected to use it."
Police used the system to determine locations the couple in their 60s visited on their trip to Adelaide from Wuhan after they were found to be infected with the virus on February 2. They'd arrived in South Australia on January 21 and the system found they'd visited relatives around the state's capital as well as a house auction, prompting the temporary closure of a real estate office.
Police would not give details of how the system operated but said it only required a phone number, which would then provide a list of details regarding the phone's usage. The information outlines how long a phone call lasts and where it was received as well as every tine the phone connected to or used a phone tower. It could also still determine the areas the device was in whether location services was switched on or off.
Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, 22 law enforcement agencies across Australia, including the South Australian police, are able to access metadata without a warrant. South Australian police declined to comment to Gizmodo Australia when asked if permission was requested from the couple before or after obtaining their metadata, or at all.
Gizmodo Australia has contacted authorities in NSW, Queensland and Victoria to confirm whether other states are using similar methods to track the potential spread of the new virus. NSW Health has denied using metadata as a method of determining where confirmed coronavirus patients have visited prior to quarantine.
"NSW Public Health experts interview patients with notifiable disease to identify those people with whom they were in contact and who are at risk of infection," a NSW Health spokesperson told us.
"Where helpful and with the patient's consent, NSW Public Health routinely uses a range of tools (e.g. maps, calendars, shopping dockets and so on) to assist patients to provide relevant information."
Similarly, Victoria's health department has confirmed it would not use metadata tracking for now.
"The use of phone metadata to track coronavirus patients in Victoria is not necessary at this time," a spokesperson said to Gizmodo Australia.
"Victorians with coronavirus who are currently in home isolation are complying with all the requirements of the department."
It's understood Queensland Health has no intention of using the method for the time being.
The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has made no secret its after access to Australian's metadata in order to investigate tax evasion in the country. It comes after the tax agency was excluded from warrant-free access with the 2015 metadata retention laws.