Police in Australia have co-opted COVID-19 apps to fight crime

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The murder of motorcycle boss Nick Martin on a freeway in Perth, Australia has left police with a slew of evidence that has led them to the culprit: a thrill-seeker turned mercenary. But they wanted more.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided it in the form of an electronic trawl – the QR code check-in data from contact-tracing apps of 2,439 fans who attended the December 2020 race. A government order requiring fans people from providing contact tracing information amid the COVID-19 outbreak meant that anyone checking into the track that day would leave 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 gained access to the data despite Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s promise that the data would only be accessible to contact tracing personnel.

“They have violated the trust of the Western Australian public and have let everyone down,” said Mia Davies, leader of the state’s opposition National Party, in a written statement blaming the government for failing to legislate the safeguards from the outset.

Western Australian Police did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment.

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

Some critics blame poor privacy laws in Australia for the way police exploited information collected for a health emergency. Similar countries, including New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have QR check-ins that don’t collect and host individual location information in central databases, said cryptographer Vanessa Teague, a privacy researcher at the Australian National University.

One alternative is to store contact tracing data on people’s individual phones, so that app user information is only accessible when they’ve been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

Michelle Falstein, assistant secretary of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, said Australia’s Privacy Act 1988 was enacted before the internet was in widespread use and long before virtually every adult and adolescent citizen had a smartphone.

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

In Perth, QR check-in data intercepted by police proved in court to have nothing to do with the arrest of Nick Martin’s killer, who has since pleaded guilty. Identified in the court records only by the initials BLJ, the attacker crawled in through a hole in the fence and fled the same way, presumably avoiding the QR check-in. His name has been withheld by authorities because he is a collaborating witness against the man who he claims hired him for the murder.

Normal cell phone data positioned the BLJ at the point where ballistics experts calculated the bullet was fired. CCTV showed him on the track that day wearing Fila running shoes similar to the ones that left footprints at the shooter’s vantage point.

More evidence fell into police hands when BLJ took his rifle to a gunsmith to have the barrel replaced. The dealer recorded the tampering in a firearms database, which quickly came to the attention of investigators. Police recovered the original barrel from the gunsmith and ballistics showed that 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 AP’s Global Investigative Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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