Australian government overhauls privacy code to maintain public trust

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A man walks into a Centrelink, part of the Australian government's department of human services where job seekers search for employment, in a Sydney suburb, August 7, 2014. Reuters/Jason Reed

Australia's top public servant Martin Parkinson has announced that the government’s privacy code will be overhauled. The announcement comes following a series of errors and concerns that people are losing confidence in the government’s ability to handle personal data.

Parkinson declared the move after a lobbying by Information Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim. The latter reportedly wrote to Parkinson, saying the government had to ensure it respected privacy and community expectations. Pilgrim expressed his view that there is an urgent need for the Aussie government to build a social licence for its uses of data, specifically in the current context, where there are plans to boost data usage and availability.

The government had to deal with criticism for several high-profile inadvertent privacy breaches in the past years. For instance, a journalist having access to Centrelink client's personal information is slammed and considered unethical. The Commonwealth Ombudsman called the letter from OCI demanding money from Centrelink recipients "reasonable and appropriate,” but was quick to note that the method used was "unfair and unreasonable.”

Pilgrim previously confirmed his office resumed informal investigations of the Department of Human Services' release of Centrelink recipients' personal information. Another example was the Medicare data leak that left former health minister Sussan Ley apologising to doctors in September.

"I believe that if this is not done, there is a risk that the community may lose trust in the ability of Government to deliver on key projects which involve the use of personal information,” The ABC quotes Pilgrim. He argued there is an "urgent need" for reform.

He told the Senate Community Affairs References Committee on Thursday morning he would look into how the Department of Human Services utilised income data as part of its Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) or robo-debt system. He stressed Australian public service must move beyond compliance with the existing Australian Privacy Principles. He added it should begin to have a best practice approach to privacy.

Therefore, he will develop a code in cooperation with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It will apply from 2018.

The code is expected to make more explicit how agencies must comply with the Australian Privacy Principles. Pilgrim added that the code would also for the current data-matching legislation and guidelines to be superseded.

Furthermore, Pilgrim has declared that he is going to carry out an audit of the Centrelink's automated debt recovery program. The Commonwealth Ombudsman previously learned that the program lacked transparency and some customers were unfairly treated.

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