Privacy – the government takes as it gives
Changes to Australia’s privacy laws were recently announced to much fanfare by the federal government. Attorney General Nicola Roxon hailed them as the most significant changes to the Privacy Act in 24 years, strengthening Australians’ rights to privacy.
Roxon highlighted new powers to the Privacy Commissioner to issue million dollar fines against government agencies and companies for serious and repeated privacy breaches.
Companies will have to give people an easy opt-out from receiving direct marketing material and have greater obligations to ensure comprehensive privacy policies are in place. Rules on collecting and using private information are tightened.
The changes don’t come into force until March 2014 to give business and bureaucracy time to adjust.
But just as the government gives, so does it take away. Buried in the 290 pages of an explanatory memorandum for the Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Act 2012 are details of how authorities and corporations can get even more information on citizens.
Credit providers will be able to provide customers’ repayment history to banks if they haven’t repaid loans two weeks after default. Companies will be able to give customers’ personal information to offshore call centres.
The new laws also remove bans on biometric data such as facial scans recorded in passports, driver licences or office and nightclub entry passes being given to police or spy agencies without a warrant. This type of photographic facial recognition technology is growing in pubs, clubs, ATMs, shops and offices.
It comes as police and government security agencies have sharply increased their access to vast amounts of private telephone and internet data. Figures from the Attorney General’s Department show that an average 5,800 times a week government agencies obtain private internet and telephone data from Australians, up 20 per cent on last year. Access is authorised by senior police officers or officials rather than by judicial warrant. It’s not just police who use the information, but also the taxman, Medicare, Centrelink, Australia Post, RSPCA and local councils.
The government has proposed even more powers for authorities, including a minimum two year online data retention standard for phone and internet providers. It’s all in the name of national security and fighting crime, but there are concerns the growth of data retention lacks independent or judicial overview and the extent to which it breaches privacy. A parliamentary committee is currently looking at the issue and there are fears of “Big Brother” controls.
Ironically, the government has refused to release its draft legislation on the issue, saying there is a need to keep the material private until it is ready for public release.