THE DEBATE on privacy regulation should focus more on what is done with personal details and less on the collection of that information, said Australian Law Reform Commission president Professor David Weisbrot, last week.
His comments came before the ALRC launched a new wide-ranging inquiry this week into privacy protections.
Weisbrot said the fact that vast amounts of information are now collected was a given.
“Technology now makes the acquisition of lots of information very easy. The bigger policy question is what uses do you allow with that information,” he said.
“I think people still have a view that the collection issue is the big problem, and these days I think it’s gone beyond that — the collection is fairly routine.”
As well as looking into the effectiveness of privacy laws in the face of “huge” advances in the ability to capture and link large amounts of personal information, the inquiry will consider how to consolidate the various laws around the country dealing with privacy.
The release of the ALRC’s 600-page issues paper on Monday comes more than two decades after the Commission’s first report into privacy was tabled in 1983, which led to the 1988 federal Privacy Act.
Weisbrot said technological advances meant they would now be assessing completely different threats to privacy. “If you look at the environment that the ALRC operated in 20 years ago, it would have been pretty difficult [to collect personal information]. You were talking about paper files.”
“Just by surfing the web, you may reveal vast amounts of personal information, often without your knowledge — for example your health, education, credit history and sexual or political orientation.”
To ensure the ALRC makes recommendations that are not out of date by the time they are handed down, commissioner in charge of the inquiry Les McCrimmon said they had already held consultations with companies such as Microsoft to get an idea of what technology will make possible in future.
The ALRC has also noted privacy is ultimately a cultural concern and younger generations, for instance, may have less concerns about their privacy than previous generations.
“We … want to know if tech-savvy young people who have grown up in a ‘surveillance society’ have different views than their parents,” Weisbrot said.
One of the “harder policy issues” will be determining where to “draw the line” between protecting privacy, while not restricting other rights and freedoms, such as to security and freedom of expression.
It may also now be practically impossible to assure some privacy principles are adhered to.
McCrimmon said, for example, it may be questionable whether ‘anonymity’ is a sustainable privacy principle anymore.
“Given that you do have very wide-ranging surveillance, can [you] actually still in the 21st century engage anonymously in transactions,” he said.“Then the whole issue of fraud and national security comes into play in relation to that.”
The ALRC will now undertake widespread consultations, including public forums, around the country over the next 18 months, as well as examining closely the approach of other jurisdictions, including New Zealand, Canada and the UK.
Reflecting the complex nature of privacy regulation, the NSW Law Reform Commission is also investigating whether a statutory tort of privacy should be introduced, and the Victorian Law Reform Commission is looking into surveillance in public places.
As well, the New Zealand Law Commission this week launched its own review of privacy, with a similarly wide ranging brief, including tort reform.