Privacy: Redefinition in the digital age

Actor Marlon Brando put it succinctly when he said “Privacy is not something that I'm merely entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite.” This has taken a new meaning in the digital age.

Privacy laws in Australia are facing the biggest overhaul in decades with the current review of the Privacy Act (1988) by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Just think about the impact on privacy in our modern lives in the digital age –from online banking, social networking, data security, emails, mobile phones and digital cameras.

The impact of breached privacy should never be underestimated.

In October, Her Royal Majesty’s Revenues and Customs office misplaced detailed personal information on about 40 percent of Britain’s population. It happened as a result of a junior official downloading a database of names, dates of birth, identification numbers and financial account information for 25 million recipients of child benefit payments and their families onto protected CDs. They were then dropped into the internal mail for the National Audit Office. About three weeks later, when the disks had not arrived, it became obvious they had been lost.

Last month (December 2007) the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) in Northern Ireland had lost the details of more than 6,000 motorists, with the information having gone missing in transit after it was sent to the organisation's headquarters in Swansea.

And if you think that’s worrying, an experiment carried out recently on Britain’s Information Commissioner by an internet security consultancy - found details of his three bank accounts, personal details including home address and work email within just 30 minutes.

It is little wonder then High Court of Australia judge, Michael Kirby has expressed concerns that privacy laws have become irrelevant in the age of the Internet. Calls which have also been backed by Australia’s Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis.

Newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has signalled the importance of privacy by elevating the Office of the Privacy Commissioner from the Attorney General’s Department to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It is anticipated that this move will assist in improving consistency between state and federal laws governing the control of information and data.

The issue of privacy also has regional implications. At this year’s APEC Australia Summit, the APEC Privacy framework focused on the practical implementation of consistent privacy protection. For businesses purposes it is vital that APEC members have clear and simple ways of complying with basic principles of people’s personal information. After all, data has become the digital currency that fuels the growth in many of today's APEC economies.

The added complexity of the internet is that in some instances people voluntarily provide their personal information, particularly on social networking sites, which can be abused by online predators. One way of trying to combat these abuses is building a culture of information safety, in other words empowering individuals to control the collection, use and distribution of their personal information – as well as improved education, and prevention.

The Commission has drafted 301 proposals after staging the largest public consultation process in its history. The proposals include expanding the powers of the privacy commissioner, and introducing new laws enabling individuals to sue for invasion of privacy.

The review also recommends the introduction of data disclosure laws in Australia, and would force organisations to notify customers of security breaches.

Addressing a series of forums hosted by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner earlier this year, Microsoft’s Chief Privacy Officer, Peter Cullen said "Disclosure laws respond to a situation where the horse has bolted; it is better to focus on how to secure the barn.”

"Breach notification has a role to play if consumers are harmed but a notification every time information is misplaced isn't necessary; there will be so many notices that they will have little impact.”

In reforming privacy regulation in Australia we should also be mindful on impact of additional red tape, compliance costs on businesses, the effect on innovation and appropriate remedies of reform.

The internet has been an essential medium for our day-to-day business and communication, we must ensure necessary reforms protect our privacy as well as allow us to reap the benefits in productivity gained from technological advances.

Sassoon Grigorian, Manager, State Government Affairs

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