The Guardian April 19, 2000


Privacy laws to protect profits

by Anna Pha

Businesses and other private sector organisations will be "encouraged" to 
follow a new set of "standards" in the collection, holding, use, disclosure 
and transfer of personal information under a Bill introduced in Federal 
Parliament on April 12. However, the main purpose of the Privacy Amendment 
(Private Sector) Bill 2000 is the protection of business interests, 
particularly those dealing in electronic commerce and the global 
information market.

Whether you use a credit card, write a cheque, rent a house, pay by EFTPOS, 
join a loyalty shopping scheme (e.g. Fly Buys), take out a mortgage or 
personal loan, join a private health fund, visit a doctor, take out 
insurance, make a tax return, receive social security payments, complete a 
consumer questionnaire, enter a competition  data is being collected on 
YOU.

The question of whether the data is collected or destroyed, whether it can 
be passed on or sold, how it is used, or its accuracy, is what needs to be 
dealt with in any new legislation.

The Privacy Act 1988 (which this Bill seeks to amend) provides some rights 
in the public sector, but does not cover the private sector.

But the Privacy Act has been effectively undermined by privatisation, with 
contracting out to the private sector and lack of security protecting data 
collections.

New technologies have made it possible for the collection and cross-
referencing of data, and the theft of that information, on a scale never 
before imagined.

Governments have been under pressure from consumer and other organisations 
to extend privacy law into the private sector.

But the Government's Bill falls far short of what is required.

It is based on self-regulation and the adoption of codes of practice by 
organisations, rather than strict enforcement.

The Bill "establishes national standards for the handling of personal 
information by the private sector", said the Attorney General Daryl 
Williams in his Second Reading Speech in Parliament, standards to 
"encourage and support good privacy practices".

It provides a framework of principles on how personal data may be used, 
rather than whether it can be collected and used.

After July 1, 2001 (July 2002 for small businesses) companies will need the 
consent of the customers concerned to sell or pass on information.

There will not be any such obligation on information collected prior to 
that date.

The media, political parties and employers (in relation to employee 
records)  e.g. performance, behaviour, union membership, and health  
are exempt. They are free to collect, use and pass on information on 
individuals.

The Bill completely overlooks the protection of genetic information, which, 
for example, could be used by life or health insurance companies to 
discriminate against people with a higher risk of a particular medical 
condition.

It does, however, cover medical practices, pharmacies and health clubs, 
offering people the right to access their medical and other records and to 
correct information.

But the main purpose of the Bill, is not the protection of personal 
information.

As Williams points out, it is to ensure that Australia meets international 
obligations and concerns so that businesses operating out of Australia are 
not disadvantaged in electronic commerce and the global information market.

The Bill draws on the Guidelines for the Protection of Privacy and 
Transborder Flows of Personal Data drawn up by economic think tank, the 
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

It also aims to meet the European Union's directive restricting the 
transfer of personal information from member countries to other countries 
which do not have adequate privacy safeguards in place.

Profit making on the internet is another reason for the legislation, the 
government responding to pressure from the finance and electronic commerce 
sectors who want to overcome public concerns about the security of personal 
information when doing business on the internet.

"This concern, if not addressed, has the potential to significantly 
influence consumer choices about whether or not to participate in 
electronic commerce", said Attorney General Williams.

Back to index page