12 Mar 2021

Mandatory Covid-19 app scanning put on back burner

6:50 am on 12 March 2021

Mandating the scanning of QR codes on the Covid Tracer app has been put in the too-hard basket by the government - for now.

A person using the Covid Tracer app

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Several significant stumbling blocks have been identified by experts, in particular, many people unable to use the app and dealing with tech giants Apple and Google.

Other countries have also run into problems trying to make their apps compulsory, due to privacy concerns.

However, the ACT Party is still pushing for the government to forge ahead.

Last month, the government said it would investigate making the use of the app compulsory.

ACT leader David Seymour says mandating QR scanning needs to happen.

"It is compulsory for businesses to display QR codes, just nobody is required to actually scan them, how crazy is that?"

But technology experts are warning it is not that straight forward.

Internet New Zealand engagement director Andrew Cushen says his main concern is digital exclusion.

"You've got a large number of New Zealanders that don't have the devices necessary to be able to participate in this, let alone know how to use them in a way that mandatory will require, so this starts to get really tricky right out of the bat," he said.

In addition, Cushen says that a large number of New Zealanders will be concerned about their privacy.

All this can mean mandating is a step too far, he says.

University of Auckland Koi Tū centre for informed futures research fellow Andrew Chen says the government is also likely to run into problems with tech companies.

"Apple and Google have rules that say if you want to use our exposure notification framework or our Bluetooth system, you have to make it voluntary and opt-in, you can't force people to participate.

"So even if we tried to make the QR code system mandatory, but not Bluetooth system mandatory, that could mean Apple and Google pull their support and we could be left without the Bluetooth side of the app," he says.

Chen says Apple and Google will not want to set a precedent for other countries that may want to use the tracing technology for less benign reasons.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has similar concerns.

"One of the challenges is our QR app is based on the Apple/Google framework and if we were to make that compulsory we would no longer have access to that technology.

"That is one of the conditions of use that they specify is that it can't be compulsory," he says.

He says if mandatory scanning goes ahead, the government will have to adopt new technology to do so.

A move that's unlikely, given that Hipkins has now said: "Mandating or compulsion would be one of the last resorts.

"There is a lot of challenges with making it compulsory as I've gone through before about where the compliance costs would rest, how you would enforce that and so on, but the overall scope of work is how do we get the scanning use up," he said.

But Seymour says those challenges should not deter the government.

"If Apple and Google are going to play hardball with New Zealand, I think we should take a more Australian approach with them.

"The nation state does have some rights against these companies, but a way to avoid the conflict may be to ask the Singaporeans how did you manage it with blue trace," he said.

Hipkins will provide an update on how the government plans to increase scanning in the coming weeks, after receiving advice from officials.

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