7 May 2020

Covid-19: Contact tracing app may discriminate against Māori

11:30 am on 7 May 2020

A digital contact tracing system poses the risk of discrimination against Māori, a technologist says.

Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore .

A contact tracing app being used in Singapore. Photo: AFP

The government may reveal more today about how contact tracing could work in New Zealand at alert level 2.

PhD candidate Karaitiana Taiuru has just released a paper on indigenous ethics guidelines for data collection and said there were concerns that collecting Māori data on tracing apps could backfire on whānau.

"It could be used for tracking people's movements and their associates' movements by social services or by New Zealand Police," he said.

"I don't want to be a scaremongerer but there is definitely room there for abuse."

He said similar privacy issues would apply to non-Māori, but they posed an increased risk for Māori, who tended to be more engaged in social services and had a history of being treated differently by police.

"Māori could potentially suffer further discrimination."

Karaitiana Taiuru

PhD candidate Karaitiana Taiuru. Photo: Supplied

Taiuru said any contact tracing system must take tikanga Māori into consideration, and encouraged the government to consider his new guidelines to ensure data collection was compliant with Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

"The contact testing essentially uses bodily fluids which is tapu to Māori. Those body fluids have our DNA, so there should be some cultural recognition around that aspect of the data.

"They need to work with Māori, with data experts, we are quite lucky we have a lot of Māori data experts in the industry and in academic."

The government is poised to provide information today about what the country can expect under alert level 2.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield have both said a national tracing app is not necessary for going to level 2, because the country's manual tracing system is more essential.

Ngāti Kahu leader Professor Margaret Mutu said one national tracing app was intrusive, and there could be another way.

She said Māori leaders tended to know who the whānau in their community were, and they could be used to improve manual tracing.

"We know our communities and we know how to communicate and how to talk to each other," she said.

"We know that some of our people, for example if they had broken their bubble and gone somewhere they should not have gone, would be fearful of being forthcoming about who they had actually had contact with for fear of punishment.

"That is to do with the way we have been criminalised so frequently and so commonly in the past."

She said Māori leaders could support the Ministry of Health's current approach to tracing, by phoning people and encouraging them to participate openly.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs