Changes to digital privacy laws – but are consumers aware?

Consumers are not aware of new digital privacy laws, says Associate Professor Katina Michael.

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Are consumers really properly protected in this digital era with the introduction of new privacy laws now coming into effect?

According to Associate Professor Katina Michael from UOW’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences and Vice Chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, many consumers are unaware of changes taking place to privacy. In a recent interview broadcast nationally on ABC and a other interviews with SBS Radio and Ten’s Wake Up, Professor Michael said the majority of Australians were unaware who could access their personal information both in Australia and overseas.

She said when applying for a credit card or a home loan, do people really know that their personal credit history is being tracked and precisely what information is being stored about the products they purchase? 

New privacy laws have now been introduced following amendments being passed by Federal Parliament. The laws as they pertain to repayment history information are retrospective to December 2012. Under the new laws, large organisations and agencies that collect personal data are required to take reasonable steps to notify consumers about the collection of sensitive information, why it is being collected and whether or not it is onsold to third parties. Individuals will also be able to request access to their personal information and expect correction to their data if it is incorrect.

Large organisations that send personal data overseas would also be bound by new principles requiring them to take reasonable steps to ensure the data remain private and secure. The Australian Council of Civil Liberties says the laws needed to be updated to recognise the growth of social media websites over recent years where many users are posting personal information about themselves online. Professor Michael emphasised that consumers who used online dating web sites were particularly vulnerable to identity attacks, given the amount of data collected by the agency to perform “matches’ with prospective candidates that was publicly available.

The new laws also include more comprehensive credit reporting which will allow the reporting of information about an individual's credit history over the previous two years to credit providers. Individuals who make a loan or credit card payments more than five days late, may struggle to obtain credit products in the future as a result of the changes. 

Professor Michael told ABC interviewer Rod Quinn: How many consumers are really aware that if they have been only five days late with a payment this will be listed on their credit history? The same goes if one is more than 60 days late for a utility payment. The Australian Privacy Foundation welcomes some aspects of the new laws which it believes will help to strengthen consumers' rights such as civil penalties for companies who are in breach of the Act, and also new enforcement powers by the Privacy Commissioner.

Professor Michael believes the new laws covering personal data could fail if companies send information to countries with weak privacy laws and regulations, or none at all. If a security breach occurs in an overseas organisation organisation it may remain unknown to Australian consumers. She also thinks that small businesses should not have been exempted from the new privacy laws highlighting the fact that 80 per cent of Australia's businesses are small businesses hiring a quarter of Australia's population. Australia made attempts in the 1980s to centralise people’s information on to one card (combining Medicare and Social Security information for example). However, the Australia Card and the Access Card never got off the ground. 

Professor Michael told ABC listeners that there was a real danger in centralising people’s personal data all on to one card should that information fall into the wrong hands or encourage scope creep. “Having all that information in one place is just too penetrable,” she said.
Professor Michael fielded a range of listener enquiries during her ABC Radio interview.