Mandatory scanning and record keeping – Expert Reaction

Businesses and events will now be responsible for ensuring people keep a record when they visit, for Covid-19 contact tracing purposes.

People will be asked to use the Covid Tracer app or other forms of record keeping at these locations at all alert levels.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Associate Professor Anna Brown, Director, Toi Āria: Design for Public Good, Massey University, comments:

“In our policy primer Digital Contact Tracing for COVID-19: A Primer for Policymakers we proposed that, for the use of digital contact tracing apps, building trust and social licence is vital. This requires sound ethical guidelines and robust engagement with the public. In Aotearoa New Zealand that requires conversation with Māori, understanding the needs of diverse communities, and a sound evidence base.

“The decision to make record-keeping compulsory shows that the Government places a high importance on contact tracing, which is very welcome. However, compulsion always carries a cost. Aotearoa New Zealand’s success at managing Covid-19 has depended to a large extent upon trust and cooperation, and it is important that the Government continues to value and preserve that trust. Especially so given that the next challenge — of high vaccination rates — requires the ultimate level of citizen trust.

“Our message is: Don’t give up on engagement and achieving public buy-in. We need to have a conversation about why scanning is useful, and for the public to understand that the most important reason to scan is for public safety. The fact that scanning is compulsory should not be the only motivating factor. People become fatigued by compulsion — we have seen this in Australia. It is tempting for Governments to respond to that fatigue with legislation and compulsion. High trust and high social expectations with resulting high public uptake and actions are more sustainable drivers of action. These are best achieved not just by clear communication but also evidence of value.”

No conflict of interest declared. This comment is provided on behalf of Anna Brown, Tim Dare, and Rhema Vaithianathan (authors of policy primer).

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“The delta variant is much more transmissible than previous variants of COVID-19. We know that time-to-isolation is one of the key factors that determines how successful we are at containing any outbreak of the disease. Contact tracing is a key epidemiological tool that helps us identify the right people who need to isolate or get tested. Manual-only methods can be effective, but technology can significantly augment and speed up the process, giving ourselves the best chance of cutting off chains of transmission. Digital contact tracing supports this process by helping us keep track of our movements, and provide the information to contact tracers in a format that helps them act faster.

“The government’s announcement today about mandatory recordkeeping for “busy places and events” (which translates roughly to the language of “higher-risk venues” that is used in overseas jurisdictions) at all alert levels is an important and significant step. The list given in the press conference includes “cafes, restaurants, bars, casinos and concerts, aged care, healthcare facilities (excluding patients), barbers, exercise facilities, nightclubs, libraries, courts, local and central government agencies, and social services providers with customer service counters.” The new rules will be introduced 7 days after we move down each alert level, applying to the set of venues that can open up at each level.

“One of the big challenges with digital contact tracing in New Zealand has been the relatively low level of participation. Before the current outbreak of cases, only approximately 10% of New Zealand adults were scanning QR codes on a regular basis. The Bluetooth Tracing participation rate was more promising (around 35-40%), but this is still not high enough to give us confidence that the data will cover any outbreak anywhere in the country. Modelling from Te Pūnaha Matatini last year showed that we need at least 60%, and preferably 80%, of adults participating in digital contact tracing to have a meaningful impact on the reproducibility rate of COVID-19. With the delta variant, we need that participation rate to be higher than ever.

“The international evidence suggests that making recordkeeping mandatory is the strongest driver for increasing the participation rate. Some form of mandated recordkeeping has been in place in Australia at a State level, in Singapore, Qatar, China, India, and previously in the United Kingdom. In New Zealand, we have seen evidence that even unenforced mandates (e.g. mask wearing on public transport) have a significant effect on behaviour, and that it sends a clear signal to the public on what the government expects is necessary for us to keep COVID-19 under control. The current penalties in the COVID-19 Response Act are not massive ($300-$1000), but they are under review and could increase.

“It is important to note that this announcement relates to mandatory recordkeeping, not QR code scanning specifically. While people who cannot use NZ COVID Tracer are also welcome to try Rippl, venues will also be required to have pen and paper options available. It is important that businesses move away from using sheets of paper on clipboards, and use ballot boxes where available. With the sheets of paper, anyone can read the details of other people who have signed-in already, which can lead to some of the privacy breaches we saw last year with serious consequences. With the ballot box, individuals write their details on a small slip of paper, and then drop them into a box (like an election box) so that other members of the public cannot easily access them. Venues can then clear the box once a day, putting the slips of paper into a bag with the date on it in case they are needed by contact tracers later on, or otherwise discarding them after 60 days. The government has a ballot box template available online.

“Business owners and those organising events will also be concerned about enforcement of recordkeeping. At this stage, the onus falls on them and their staff to enforce it – clearer guidance will need to be provided by the government on how those staff deal with people who insist on not providing their details. If it is too restrictive (e.g. people are turned away), there may be human rights implications if this means people cannot access services that provide basic needs. A common-sense balance needs to be struck between keeping the community safe, and not further antagonising those who choose not to comply.

“This would also be a good opportunity for the government to invest into addressing the digital exclusion challenges that face many New Zealanders. By some estimates, as much as 20% of the adult population does not have access to a smartphone or the skills to use one effectively, and policies such as vouchers for smartphones or more funding for community skills training could help improve the proportion of NZers participating in digital contact tracing. That digital access and skills training will have long-term benefits beyond the pandemic as well.

“It is also an opportunity for the government to introduce legislation that protects the data collected through digital contact tracing platforms to ensure that it can only ever be used for contact tracing purposes. In Singapore and in some Australian states, trust and confidence in digital contact tracing were significantly impacted when it was revealed that Police had accessed the data for law enforcement purposes. While New Zealand Police have stated that they “have not, and will not” use NZ Covid Tracer data for law enforcement purposes, legislation to create stronger penalties for misuse would further assure New Zealanders that participation is safe. Such legislation would also protect against employers or businesses misusing that data as well.

“There are some risks that come with mandatory recordkeeping, but the government has the tools to mitigate many of them. For the rest of us, it serves as a reminder of the role that movement records play in the contact tracing process, and how critical it is for all of us to play our part. In the best-case scenario, we keep these records and then throw them away because we didn’t need them. But infected people and contacts having their records from before they get sick could make the difference between managing the outbreak successfully and the virus running out of control. We have all done a lot more, for a lot less.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have had interactions with the Ministry of Health around digital contact tracing in an academic capacity, but am not employed or paid by them. 

Professor Dave Parry, Department of Computer Science, AUT, comments:

“The government has recently announced that they will bring in mandatory signing in/ scanning in for some businesses. This has been on the cards for some time, but fits in more with the plan for a return to normality in the future than the current lockdown. QR scanning code numbers before the current lockdown were relatively low (around 500,000 per day) which indicates that most of the time, most people are not scanning in.

“The tracer app would be much more useful for contact tracing if people did record their movements, especially before it is known that there is a case in the community. The app supports identifying where people with known COVID have been, making it quicker to identify where they may have been infected and hence if they are part of a known “cluster”. It also allows people who have been to locations of interest to be identified and warned early, hopefully allowing them to be tested and/or isolate early – before they have passed on COVID to others.

“It’s likely that a lot of “missed” scans are because people simply forget or find it inconvenient to scan. Unfortunately, automatic scanning is difficult to implement, mainly because this would break the privacy model agreed with Apple and Google, which allows the Bluetooth contact detection to work. But the diary is still  extremely useful, especially in situations where you may not remember when you visited a business or location up to 2 weeks ago. This works to reduce the need to self-isolate and get tested when you haven’t visited a location of interest, as well as when you have to take action.

“Mandatory sign/scan-in will largely act as a reminder to people to use the app and it will also be helpful to the plan to open up the country. It’s expected that people from low-risk overseas countries in particular will be moving around New Zealand without having gone through MIQ, so a good record of their movements – especially in the first two weeks in-country – will be vital. It’s likely that the main areas where it will be enforced will be places where people are checked for ID or tickets anyway, such as nightclubs, cinemas  etc. It won’t stop people pretending to scan or giving a false name etc., but this is much less of an issue than simply forgetting to use the app.

“The app protects privacy very well – no information is shared automatically with the government, unlike some other overseas systems. Matching the data in the app diary with other data (e.g. CCTV or EFTPOS data) in order to prosecute a venue is not going to happen either. Although police overseas have used app data for criminal investigations (eg. in Australia, when investigating a gangland murder), the New Zealand government has clearly stated that the data will never be used for enforcement purposes.”

No conflict of interest. 

Professor John Hopkins, Professor of Law specialising in Law and Disasters, University of Canterbury, comments: 

Mandatory record-keeping:
“The government’s announcement of compulsory recording of personal details to access particular locations (either through scanning or using a paper mechanism) has clear benefits for the pandemic response. However, implementing it may be difficult. Given that current figures suggest that around 20% of New Zealand residents don’t possess a smartphone, some manual method of sign-in is going to be required and managing such a system may be problematic given that businesses will also need to protect the privacy of individuals (under the Privacy Act).

The fact that the proposals appear to put the onus on businesses to ensure individuals sign in also may require staff to actively monitor foot traffic at the door. There could have been technological systems to achieve this but New Zealand’s lack of pandemic pre-planning in the technology means that the options mid-pandemic are limited. Staff checking you in to your favourite cafe will be a significant change and though far from ideal, it’s something we may have to get used to, if we want to get the chance to visit a cafe at all.”

Suspension of Parliament for a week
“Interestingly, New Zealand has very few rules around Parliament sitting in an emergency. Other countries have committees that sit as ‘mini parliaments’ in emergencies but in New Zealand, Parliament itself has to sit to then create such a committee or other structure. It doesn’t always have the opportunity to do so.

“We should also be clear that although Parliament not sitting is clearly in the interests of stopping COVID transmission – as a lot of people work there – the use of the current Select Committee structure (where the majority are chaired by government MPs) means the focus will be dissipated and will reduce the opposition’s ability to hold the ministers’ (and officials’) feet to the fire. The Epidemic Response Select Committee was perhaps a little too successful for its own good last time around.”

No conflict of interest

Dr Farkhondeh (Ferry) Hassandoust, Lecturer, Business Information Systems, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“In response to the Delta variant of COVID-19 entering the community, the NZ government has introduced mandatory sign-ins for most events and businesses. Under the Covid-19 Response Act, failure to either scan the Covid-19 Tracer App or make a manual record of the visit will lead to a fine. However, besides the benefits of this action to ensure quick contact tracing, there are privacy implications as well.

“The findings of our 2020 study show that people’s data privacy concerns hinder the use of contact tracing applications. Having said that, in the case of this pandemic, people make deliberate calculations to assess the trade-off between risks and benefits, and it seems that the societal (e.g. protecting public health), and individual (e.g. living and working effectiveness) benefits outweigh the risks.

“Our findings show there are two key elements to an effective pandemic response: an awareness of the wider context of social and public health, and public trust. From the outset of this pandemic, the NZ government has taken appropriate steps to gain people’s trust and protect their privacy in relation to the use of contact tracing applications. Therefore, we can expect people and businesses will largely adhere to the new protocols of mandatory sign-ins in the wake of the Delta outbreak.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Ian Welch, School of Engineering and Computer Science, Victoria University of Wellington:

“My main concern is over the management of the privacy of details collected using pens and paper. Situations where are register is used and is accessible by anyone provides a risk.

“However, it is possible to manage the risks perhaps by using single pieces of paper or card that are filled out and popped into a box. The advantage of this is that it breaks the linkability between the identity of the person and their home details, it also allows access to be limited to the business who have the right to collect information for a business purpose.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have previously received grants from Google and Cisco related to network security.