Melbourne is using pop-up police spy stations to find people breaking COVID rules – what does the law say?


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Rick Sarre, University of South Australia

CCTV cameras mounted on vans have recently been seen in public parks around Melbourne, ostensibly to nab anyone breaking lockdown rules. They are part of a joint initiative between several Melbourne councils, Victoria Police and the Commonwealth government.

Coming on the back of Victorian police arresting and charging a number of people for inciting others to break bans on public gatherings by protesting in the streets, there is likely to be widespread resentment to the presence of these mobile surveillance units.

Many people are already claiming the Victorian government has once again over-stepped the mark in its aggressive approach to suppressing COVID-19.

These mobile units are not new, though. They were introduced in 2018 to help combat crime. They are not cheap, either. The cost to purchase and operate four of the units has been estimated at $3.6 million.

But what are the laws around public surveillance of people going about their daily business or recreational activities outdoors?

Let me tackle this question by posing four related questions:

  • are the cameras legal?

  • are such surveillance tools effective?

  • are these measures acceptable in a vibrant democracy?

  • what protections should be put in place?




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Police and governments may increasingly adopt surveillance technologies in response to coronavirus fears


Are the cameras legal?

It needs to be stated at the outset the Constitution does not include any specific rights related to privacy. And the High Court suggested two decades ago that privacy was unlikely to be protected under common law.

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights, however, contains a provision that states people have the right not to have their

privacy unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with.

But a lawfully installed camera designed to deter offending would not, on its face, defy the terms of the charter.

International law, too, provides some privacy protections. In 1991, Australia signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states

no one should be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy.

However, Australian parliaments have introduced few laws to enshrine these protections. The legislation that has been enacted has largely been limited to curtailing the use of privately monitored listening and surveillance devices and preventing governments and big business from sharing citizens’ private information.

The Australian Law Reform Commission has issued clarion calls to extend these protections in recent years, but these efforts continue to gather dust.




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So, it should not be surprising that mobile CCTV cameras driven to and stationed in public places are perfectly legal.

Moreover, so-called “unmanned airborne vehicles” (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, are regularly deployed by police for surveillance purposes, too.

Both of these surveillance tools are backed by regulatory force at all three levels of government.

Police have been patrolling parks for weeks to ensure compliance with the Stage 4 lockdown regulations.
ERIK ANDERSON/AP

Are these surveillance tools effective?

Proponents of these mobile surveillance units argue the perceived risks to privacy and heavy investment are worth it, given the social disorder they prevent and the help they provide police in solving crimes.

However, there is much research now that casts doubt on this assumption.

In one study in 2009, for instance, CCTV cameras were only found to reduce crime by 16% overall (and by only 7% in city and town centres and public housing communities).

The efficacy of these surveillance units in a health emergency has yet to be proven. The cameras would seem to be most useful in providing police with information regarding who is using the parks, and perhaps providing something of a deterrent to those who might consider breaching lockdown restrictions, but not much more.

Are these measures acceptable?

Yes and no. On the one hand, there is no doubt people want the coronavirus restrictions to end. And if these units deter people from breaking lockdown rules, and this, in turn, helps bring the new case numbers down more quickly, people may accept the intrusion in their lives.

On the other hand, some are understandably alarmed at the increasing use of surveillance tools by authorities — dubbed “uberveillance” by sociologists.




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Even advocates for civil liberties appear ambivalent about the curtailment of some basic rights during the pandemic.

Liberty Victoria President Julian Burnside, who has been a fierce defender of privacy rights, surprised many by telling The Age,

It all sounds pretty sensible to me. … We are in a war against the coronavirus, and when you’re in a war with anything, restrictions on your otherwise normal liberties are justifiable.

Liberty Victoria quickly sought to distance itself from the comments.

What protections should be put in place?

There is no doubt parliaments are the most appropriate bodies to determine the extent to which individuals can be subjected to lawful public surveillance.

Indeed, former High Court judge Michael Kirby argues the legislative arm of government needs to step up to the task of scrutinising emergency powers with more vigour.

Otherwise it simply becomes a tame servant of the executive, which is a common weakness of parliamentary democracies of the Westminster system.

But parliaments will only respond if citizens demand this of them, and there are very few signs of that at the moment.

In the meantime, there are a number of legal tweaks that should be undertaken to ensure the government’s spying on the public domain is appropriately measured:

  1. we need to ensure the images and other data that are collected by surveillance units are stored appropriately and discarded quickly when no longer needed

  2. we need to be able to hold police and other surveillance operators to account for any excesses in the manner in which images are gathered and shared

  3. there needs to be a new legal remedy in the event there is a serious invasion of privacy by the inappropriate use or disclosure of images collected by surveillance devices.

True, we have the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner constantly reminding governments of the concerns associated with threats to privacy.

But without civic push-back, little will change. Parliamentarians are unlikely to limit the powers of the executive to allow mobile surveillance units to be parked in public places unless it becomes politically unpopular. One can but wonder when this tipping point may be reached.The Conversation

Rick Sarre, Emeritus Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison government funds ‘pop up’ testing clinics and tele-consultations in $2.4 billion COVID-19 health package


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government will unveil on Wednesday a package of coronavirus health measures, including a network of respiratory clinics, a new Medicare item for tele-consultations, and a communications campaign.

The package, which comes as the number of Australian cases reached 100, will cost A$2.4 billion, which includes $500 million announced last week to help states with their costs on a matching 50-50 basis.




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The health measures precede the government’s multi-billion stimulus to address the hit the virus will deliver to the economy, which threatens to push Australia into recession.

Up to 100 “pop up” fever clinics will be established across the country, in a program costing $205 million.

These “one stop shops” will test people worried they may have the virus. They will supplement the work of GPs and state respiratory clinics.

As people become increasingly fearful about the virus, many are seeking tests, even though they fall outside the guidelines recommended for testing.

In Melbourne on Tuesday people queued outside the Royal Melbourne Hospital. In Perth there was a queue even before a new clinic opened at the Royal Perth Hospital’s Ainslie House, despite the clinic supposedly being for those at higher risk. In South Australia a “drive through” clinic has opened.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said that in the last few days there had been a “significant surge” in the number of people requesting testing.




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Partly this had been sparked by some misinformation in the media suggesting everyone who had flu-like symptoms should be tested, he said. “We’re not saying that at the moment.”

Murphy said those who should be tested are returned travellers who develop acute respiratory symptoms or people who have been in contact with confirmed cases who develop acute respiratory symptoms.

The aim of the pop up clinics in the federal package is to deal with people with milder symptoms, taking the load off hospitals’ emergency departments and GPs, so that hospitals are only presented with the more serious cases.

Each clinic, staffed by doctors and nurses, would be able to see up to 75 patients a day over six months. They could operate as dedicated medical centres.

Health authorities and medical bodies will identify practices in regional, rural and urban areas. Some 31 Primary Health Networks will receive $300,000 to assist in identifying and setting up the “pop up” clinic sites and distributing protective equipment.

Up to an initial $150,000 will be given to help clinics start and offset losses from normal business.

The new Medicare item for telehealth will enable those who are isolated due to the virus to access medical services from home by audio or video. This will reduce risks of transmission from people going to doctors’ surgeries (and the inconvenience of consultations in car parks as doctors keep them out of surgeries).

The telehealth service, starting on Friday, will be bulk billed and available for medical, nursing and mental health medical staff to deliver services over the phone or through a video conference (including FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp). The new item will cost $100 million and run for six months, when it will be reviewed.

The telehealth services will be available to

  • people isolating at home on medical advice

  • those aged over 70

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged over 50

  • people with chronic health conditions or who have compromised immune systems

  • parents with new babies and pregnant women.

The telehealth arrangements will also mean health practitioners who are themselves in isolation will be able to continue to provide services, so long as they are fit enough to do so.




Read more:
‘Fever clinics’ are opening in Australia for people who think they’re infected with the coronavirus. Why?


The planned national communications campaign about COVID-19, including information on how to guard against the virus and what to do if you get it, will start within days and cost $30 million.

A wide range of platforms will be employed, and particular audiences targeted. It will use television, radio, print, digital, social media and displays on public transport and at shopping centres, as well as putting material in doctors waiting rooms. Market research and tracking will be used to refine the campaign.

Scott Morrison said Australia is “as well prepared as any country in the world” to deal with the virus, and the health package “is about preventing and treating coronavirus in the coming weeks.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.