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Privacy catching up to the information age

By Natasha Stott Despoja - posted Wednesday, 9 January 2008

When the Coalition was elected on March 2, 1996, few would have anticipated the intensity of the information revolution that lay ahead for the Howard government in its 11½ years at the helm.

Many considered themselves “computer literate” by then, but in reality this meant little more than the ability to tap out a letter on a word processor - at that stage it could even have been the archaic WordPerfect, long since consigned to the programming archives.

In March 1996, only the lucky few had access to the Internet at home. Google was in its infancy as a research project at Stanford University, the launch of Hotmail was months away and online banking would not be introduced by the Commonwealth Bank for another year. The likes of YouTube and Facebook were almost a decade away.


The primary instrument that protects the privacy of users in an on-line environment is the Privacy Act. It was enacted by the Hawke Labor government in 1988, the product of a seven-year research effort by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) which gave effect to Australia’s obligations to implement the OECD Guidelines for the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data.

Since our formation in 1977, the Australian Democrats have led the way on developing privacy law. It was through the use of our balance of power that we managed to defeat the Australia Card, paving the way for the formation of the Privacy Act. Our other major achievements include introducing a Private Senator’s Bill to extend the coverage of the Privacy Act to the private sector; long campaigning for the removal of several exemptions from privacy laws; and initiating the wide ranging Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee Inquiry into the effectiveness of privacy laws.

At the same time as working to enhance privacy laws, the Democrats have also embraced new technologies. Eleven years ago, when I entered the Senate, there were no parliamentary email addresses and no access to the Internet for MPs and their offices. I was one of the first politicians to have an email address and website (well before the advent of parliamentary email addresses) and I tabled the first online petition in 1997.

Despite the best efforts of the Democrats, the Privacy Act has failed dismally to keep pace with the rapid advances in the fields which the Act regulates. It has also had to cope with events like September 11 that spurred a whole new set of reasons to invade personal privacy. Following the tragic events on that day, the Howard government passed 40 pieces of security related legislation.

Many laws removed independent judicial scrutiny of applications to conduct surveillance and intelligence gathering operations, in favour of self-authorising mechanisms with little oversight. In Parliament’s last two sitting periods alone, laws were passed that allow AFP officers to secretly enter and search people’s homes and computers, without having to inform the person for months or even years after the search is completed. Other laws granted AFP and ASIO officers access to “prospective data” from mobile phones without any judicial oversight or the requirement of a warrant, with the potential to allow any mobile to be used as a de facto tracking device.

In September, the government introduced and passed legislation in one sitting day that gave retrospective sanction to the use of the Australian Crime Commission’s coercive powers - which allow the abrogation of the right to silence (by definition, an invasion of personal privacy) - when the Courts had called the admissibility of evidence obtained under those powers into question.


In combination, the information revolution, a heightened security environment, and the failure of the government to ensure that privacy laws keep pace mean that personal privacy is more under threat than ever before.

In December 2007, Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court and Federal Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis, called for an urgent overhaul of laws governing the Internet, warning that the present legislative and regulatory frameworks are inadequate to cope with issues such as identity fraud and safeguards for personal information.

Few would be better qualified to comment on the adequacy of our privacy laws: Justice Kirby helped to engineer the OECD guidelines which formed the basis of the Privacy Act in the 1980s. His appointment to the High Court preceded the Howard government’s election by just months (perhaps much to Mr Howard’s regret) and as such his term has coincided with the information revolution that left the government in its wake.

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About the Author

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was the Australian Democrats spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Attorney-Generals, Science & Biotechnology, Higher Education and the Status of Women (including Work & Family). She is a former Senator for South Australia.

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