Australians crying out for better privacy protections

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Almost all Australians want the government and businesses to do more to protect their privacy, while the rise of invasive technologies and several high-profile data breaches are creating growing unease, according to an influential survey.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) on Tuesday released its latest attitudes to privacy survey results, which will be used by the privacy watchdog to inform its contribution to ongoing reforms to privacy laws.

The survey reveals a low awareness of the current framework for protecting and enforcing privacy law, and shows there is strong support for several reforms currently being considered by the Albanese government.

Australians also want the privacy law carve outs for Parliamentarians and political parties removed.

The OAIC Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey, released on Tuesday, shows a sharp rise in the perceived risk of data breaches after several high-profile incidents in the last year, and a clear distinction in Australians’ comfort with invasive technologies depending on who uses them and for what purpose.

“Australians see data breaches as the biggest privacy risk today, which is not surprising with almost half of those surveyed saying they were affected by a data breach in the prior year,” Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said.

“There is a strong desire for organisations to do more to advance privacy rights, including minimising the amount of information they collect, taking extra steps to protect it and deleting it when no longer required.”

The majority of Australians said they were uncomfortable with biometric analysis – defined in the survey as the use of techniques such as artificial intelligence to make assumptions or predictions about the characteristics of an individual from their biometric data.

The main areas of concern for Australians with the uses of their biometric information are targeting and profiling for commercial purposes, with acceptance improving for certain border security and law enforcement contexts.

Around nine in 10 Australians would like businesses and government to do more to protect their personal information, while nearly as many said they want more control and choice over the collection and use of their information.

“Not only is good privacy practice the right thing to do and what the community expects, it’s a precondition for the success of innovations that rely on personal information,” Ms Falk said.

The OAIC will use the attitudes survey – its first since 2020 – for its input on the long-running review of the Privacy Act, which is considering sweeping changes that include a “right to erasure” and a statutory tort for serious invasions of privacy.

93 per cent of the survey respondents believe Australians should have specific rights to ask a business to delete personal information.

There is similar strong support for seeking compensation in court for a breach of privacy (89 per cent), knowing when personal information is used in automated decision-making (89 per cent) and for an independent body to rate how well organisations protect personal information (79 per cent).

The survey found 69 per cent of Australians are aware of the existence of current Australian privacy law but only two per cent could correctly name it as the ‘Privacy Act’ or ‘Australian Privacy Principles’.

Most do not know about exemptions from the federal legislation for certain groups like political parties, small businesses and media organisations, while nearly half of Australians aren’t aware of the existence of the national privacy regulator.

An increasingly strong majority want the exemptions changed so the groups have to do more to protect personal information.

“The share of people who think political parties and representatives should be held to the same standards as federal government agencies and larger business increased from 74 per cent in 2020 to 82 per cent in 2023, and for businesses collecting work-related information went from 73 per cent to 81 per cent,” the report said.

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