A funding boost for the Office of the Information Commissioner in this year’s budget would be used to underwrite new responsibilities, rather than addressing ongoing under-resourcing, Senate estimates has been told.
The budget included an additional $25.1 million over three years for the OAIC to “facilitate timely responses to privacy complaints and support strengthened enforcement actions in relation to social media and other online platforms that breach privacy regulations”.
The funding, allow with additional cash given to the office to handle the Consumer Data Right, will increase the OAIC’s staffing from 93 to 124.
With an imminent federal election, and as-yet no similar announcement from the Opposition, it’s also unclear whether the new rules and funding for the OAIC will ever eventuate.
There are ongoing concerns that the OAIC is inadequately resourced to deal with an increased focus on data security and online privacy, and a large Freedom of Information request backlog.
The OAIC’s existing workload has been increasing, and the office has been handed new responsibilities with the Notifiable Data Breach scheme and the Consumer Data Right.
There was an 18 per cent increase in privacy complaints received by the OAIC in the last year, and a 27 per cent increase in FOI access review request. In the last six months of 2018 there was a 22 per cent increase in privacy complaints and a 42 per cent increase in FOI complaints.
The office received 10,000 enquiries in total across its remit in the second half of 2018.
It had been hoped that the much-needed cash injection would help address this issue, but at a senate estimates hearing on Tuesday morning, Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk confirmed this funding was for new responsibilities.
“Since the last occasion I appeared before the Committee the government announced proposed provisions to strengthen privacy provisions under the Privacy Act, including increased penalties and new systems of infringement notices Importantly, my office will receive $25 million over three years to deliver new work and enhance the office’s ability to prevent, protect, deter and remedy interferences with privacy,” Ms Falk told estimates.
There is also expected to be an enforceable code including additional safeguards around data sharing transparency, consent for the disclosure of data and stronger protections for children and vulnerable Australians online.
“The OAIC will be focused on working collaboratively and constructively with all parties to enhance privacy protections both online and offline and to give Australians greater control over personal information, and ensure it is handled in a way that’s transparent and accountable,” Ms Falk said.
No additional funding has been provided for the office’s FOI functions, Ms Falk said, and the backlog remains as dire as it has been over recent years.
“The situation at present remains much as it was when I appeared on the 19 February this year,” she said.
Despite the funding boost, the OAIC has also been forced to work with consultancy firm Synergy to identify potential efficiencies in its operations, with a report expected later this week.
“The consultants are working with us to go through all of our processes to see if there’s any way we can streamline them and make them more efficient and effective and produce more timely results,” deputy commissioner Elizabeth Hampton said.
“They’re working through a new model with us, and spending a lot of time with the team to unpick each process involved with the key functions to see if there’s an repetition, anything we can do to streamline these processes.”
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick used the opportunity to urge the Opposition to make an election pledge of restoring three separate commissioner for privacy, information and FOI responsibilities.
“There were motions in the Senate agreed to by the Labor party that we need to restore that to three, and I’m hoping that’ll be an election promise at some point for those in the front seats,” Senator Patrick said.
The OAIC’s struggles come as its New Zealand counterparts has come out swinging against Facebook, labeling the social media company “morally bankrupt”.
New Zealand privacy commissioner John Edwards has been critical of Facebook since the Christchurch terrorist attack, part of which was livestreamed on the platform.
“They are morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide (Myanmar), facilitate foreign undermining of democratic institutions,” Mr Edwards posted on social media.
“They allow the live-streaming of suicides, rapes, and murders, continue to host and publish the mosque attack video, allow advertisers to target ‘Jew haters’ and other hateful market segments, and refuse to accept any responsibility for any content or harm,” he posted.
The OAIC is yet to comment on Facebook’s role in the terrorist attack.