Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
Since 1990, Australian public sector agencies with responsibilities in the privacy area have met six monthly to compare experiences and identify areas for common action. Since 1993 the New Zealand Privacy Commissioner has also attended.
The most recent meeting was hosted by the Privacy Unit of the ACT Attorney- General's Office in Canberra on November 12 1993. The meeting was opened by the ACT Attorney-General, Terry Connolly, who spoke on his government's commitment to protecting privacy. Those attending included the Australian and New Zealand Privacy Commissioners, staff from their respective offices, representatives of the NSW and SA Privacy Committees, the Queensland Attorney-General's Department and the ACT Privacy Unit.
The Queensland Privacy Committee expired in 1991 following the operation of a sunset clause in its enabling legislation. Legislation regulating specific practices and occupations remains in force, though its scope has been reduced by the Commonwealth Privacy Act credit reporting provisions. Public sector privacy protection remains on the post-Fitzgerald reform agenda. In the short term this is likely to be achieved through cabinet instructions incorporating a set of Information Privacy Principles (IPPs) rather than legislation. In the longer term legislation incorporating a tort of privacy is being considered. The ACT is also considering the most appropriate form of privacy regulation following the separation of its public service from the Commonwealth.
In the absence of a uniform national coverage, this meeting tended to focus on issues of concern to the established agencies. New Zealand Commissioner Slane gave a characteristically entertaining report on his experiences over the first six months operation of the New Zealand Privacy Act. In the first four months of operation a total of 86 complaints on alleged breaches of IPPs and 16 complaints relating to the Health Code of Practice had been received. He also instanced problems in the enforcement of the new Social Welfare Reform Act which had required his intervention, including the expectation that doctors would disclose a wide range of personal information about patients who were welfare beneficiaries. There was an interesting discussion on the strategies pursued to create and maintain networks of trained and experienced officers in both public and private data collecting agencies, as required by the Act.
Australian Commissioner O'Connor reported on representations made by his office to a range of inquiries and policy formation bodies. Areas singled out for specific attention included telecommunications, genetic testing, data- matching and the Law Enforcement Access Network.
The NSW Privacy Committee cited recent proposals in the area of vehicle tracking and card payment systems which combined digitally captured information with computerised matching. These had the potential to throw up new kinds of privacy issues. The development of such schemes highlighted the absence of any legislative protection for digital data communications equivalent to the law regulating telephone interception. Michael Pickering from Telstra and Martin Butterfield from the Australian Bureau of Statistics gave guest presentations on telecommunication privacy and on planning for the 1996 census.
The meeting provided a useful barometer on the way governments in Australia and New Zealand have responded to privacy issues. Despite a steady convergence in the issues confronting all jurisdictions, the meeting also served as a reminder of how uneven the response has been.
John Gaudin is a research officer with the New South Wales Privacy Committee.