Privacy risks in registry sale

James Riley
Editorial Director

Victoria’s privacy watchdog has raised a series of data and security concerns over the controversial sale of the state’s land titles registry.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) said in a submission to an inquiry that the commercialisation of the essential service would remove many of the current privacy and security oversight functions and hamper the general public’s ability to access information.

An inquiry into the Victorian government’s plans to commercialise the land titles and registry functions of Land Use Victoria, the body responsible for the registration of all land and property in Victoria, was launched in late May.

Sven Bluemmel: Commercialising Victorian land registry will hamper the general public’s ability to access information.

The organisation holds sensitive data on mortgages, restrictions, leases and rights of way.

Among other issues, the Standing Committee on the Environment and Planning will be looking into the “risks to privacy and security of sensitive data held by Land Use Victoria”.

The state government’s plans to sell a 40-year lease for the land titles registry to a commercial operator was flagged in last year’s budget, with the registrar of titles remaining under government control. The government is hoping to sell the service for at least $2 billion.

But a series of concerns have been raised over the planned sale, leading the Victorian upper house to refer the motion to an inquiry in May, to report back in earlier August.

A number of submissions to the inquiry have now been made public, including from OVIC, which focused on the potential risks to privacy and data security with the commercialisation.

The privacy regulator recommended that the buyer prepare “clear communication about the new arrangements”, be subject to mandatory data breach notification obligations and conduct privacy impact assessments on any new services.

Victorian Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel said a data breach involving the information held on the land titles registry would be “significant”, and that the new operator would not be subject to federal data breach notification laws.

“To ensure that any issues in information handling practices can be quickly identified, remedied and learnt from, I recommend the Operator by subject to a data breach notification obligation, requiring it to notify my office directly of data breaches involving personal information,” Mr Bluemmel said in the submission.

Mr Bluemmel said a primary concern with the sale is that many of the current oversight mechanisms will then be determined through private contracts, rather than public regulations.

“This means that current privacy rules, freedom of information regulation and data breach schemes will no longer apply.

“This will necessarily alter the way in which individuals can expect their information rights, currently protected under statute, to be maintained and enforced.

“Some changes to the information rights and how they can be exercised by Victorians are inevitable. This should be carefully considered, given the long term of the proposed lease,” Mr Bluemmel said.

The public’s ability to access information about the registry will be hampered, Mr Bluemmel said, with the new operator not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, leading to reduced scrutiny of its activities.

If prices to access the registry went up, for example, it would be “difficult or impossible” for the public to obtain information on why this has happened.

“This is likely to result in a practical reduction in the scope of material that will be accessible to FOI applicants as a result of the commercialisation,” he said.

The buyer of the land titles registry is likely to offer new products and services using the data, but given the “significance of the data” involved and the number of individuals who would be impacted, Privacy Impact Assessments would not to be conduct by independent third parties, Mr Bluemmel said.

“The state should be satisfied that the primary protections the operator will build into any new products are of a high standard prior to approving any new offering.

“The process for approving new products should be made as transparent as possible. This would assist in maintaining community trust in the land titles system,” he said.

A number of other submissions to the inquiry were critical of the plans to sell off the essential service, with many focusing on the potential for increased pricing with the commercialisation of a monopoly.

Melbourne-based research and advocacy not-for-profit Prosper Australia said the sale is likely to lead to “price gouging and higher prices”.

“On the available data, the economic case for privatisation is limited.

“There is no fiscal rationale for privatisation; the Victorian government would be $240 million a year better off if it retained the land titling function as a profitable public monopoly and issued bonds to finance spending,” Prosper Australia said in the submission.

The Law Institute of Victoria has also raised “serious concerns” with the move.

“The Victorian land registry houses a significant volume of highly sensitive personal data relating to property titles,” Law Institute of Victoria president Belinda Wilson said.

“The privatisation of the land registry may compromise the security, accuracy and privacy of this data, as governmental oversight controls may no longer be applicable, resulting in it being exploited for corrupt or fraudulent means,” Ms Wilson said.

Greens state leader Samantha Ratnam, who led the push for the inquiry, also raised concerns with data security.

“This is an enormous concern and the public is right to be sceptical of any assurances the government seeks to give.

“Data breaches are becoming commonplace, but the consequences are far, far reaching. Accountability for land titles data rightfully belongs with the government and only with the government,” Dr Ratnam said.

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