AUSTRALIANS' privacy protections have been eroded more than in any other country since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, experts warn.
Over the past decade Australia and its Western allies in the ''war against terror'', including the US, Britain and France, have collected more information about their citizens' movements in an effort to prevent further terrorist attacks.
Concerns about dwindling privacy protections come as two separate government inquiries into changes in Australia's major privacy laws continue.
Liberty Victoria president Spencer Zifcak said Australian privacy protections had been compromised more than in other countries despite ''reasonably effective'' information privacy principles.
Australian Privacy Foundation vice-chairman David Vaile agrees, saying the Australian government had failed to tell people how much of their personal information was being collected, creating a ''honeypot'' of data open to potential abuse.
He said the Government should be more transparent about the security risks involved in its proposals for reforms to national security legislation and its personal controlled e-health records, which allow health professionals to share patients' medical history.
Mr Vaile, a former member of the Information Security World Advisory Board, said Australians had only an implied right to privacy, which was narrowly enforced.
He said the Privacy Commissioner's powers were weak and rarely used effectively, with only one determination made in seven years.
''One of the fundamental issues is the failure to either provide individuals with a right to enforce their own privacy, like they have in many other countries … or to oblige the commissioner to do their job,'' Mr Vaile said. ''You have [had] the privacy commissioner demoted and buried inside the office of the Australian information commissioner, whose main role is to encourage information to be widely distributed, so there is a potential conflict of interest.''
It comes as two separate federal inquiries are under way into potential reforms to major privacy laws in Australia, with hundreds of public submissions already sent to both.
The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee is expected to release its report on proposed reforms to the Privacy Act at the end of this month.
Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon described the reforms as ''the most significant developments in privacy reform since Labor introduced the Privacy Act in 1988''.
The joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security is also considering potential reforms to national security legislation, and will deliver its recommendations at the end of the year. The government's discussion paper includes a controversial proposal to compel telcos to retain Australians' internet history for up to two years.
Mr Zifcak said this took a ''mass surveillance approach'' to national security, which had grave implications for individuals' right to privacy. He said data retention should be targeted only when people were reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal activity.
''What will inevitably happen is that law enforcement agencies will make sweeping requests for information about people's computer usage.
‘‘What will inevitably happen is that law enforcement agencies will make sweeping requests for information about people’s computer usage, in the vague hope that something might be discovered.
‘‘The risk, however, is that in that process the privacy of hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent parties will be compromised.’’
Ms Roxon said Labor’s introduction of the country’s first independent national security legislation monitor ‘‘to review the operation, effectiveness and implications of Australia’s counter-terrorism and national security legislation on an ongoing basis’’ also strengthened privacy protections.
‘‘Striking the right balance between protecting Australians against the threat of terrorism and protecting their privacy is a task I take very seriously,’’ Ms Roxon said.
‘‘We cannot allow technology to create a ‘safe haven’ for criminals or a ‘no-go’ zone for law enforcement, but at the same time, we must have the right checks and balances in place. Therefore I support regularly reviewing and updating the capabilities of those who help keep us safe.
‘‘I have put options on the table and explained their basis so the Australian public, experts and politicians can engage in this important national debate.’’
With HENRIETTA COOK
The Privacy Question:Australia is at a crossroads. People are sharing more personal information than ever before. Your health records, transport movements, shopping history and online transactions are increasingly being monitored and shared.
Major changes are underway to Australia's privacy laws which will affect how our personal information is stored and used by the government and companies.
theage.com.au 17 Sep 2012