An inquiry has been launched into the Victorian government’s plan to sell the state’s land titles registry amid “serious concerns” over the privacy and security of the sensitive data stored on it.
The motion for the Standing Committee on the Environment and Planning to begin an inquiry into the commercialisation of the land titles and registry functions of Land Use Victoria was moved by the Greens in state parliament late last week and supported by the Opposition.
The motion was slammed by the state government, with claims that it may derail the eventual sale, as expressions of interest closed on Monday. Among other issues, the inquiry will look into the “risks to privacy and security of sensitive data held by Land Use Victoria”.
Land Use Victoria is responsible for the registration of all land and property in Victoria, overseeing $382 million in transactions in 2016-17. It holds data on mortgages, restrictions, leases and rights of way.
The Victorian government flagged in last year’s budget that it would be moving to privatise the land titles registry. Under the plan, a 40-year lease will be given to a commercial operator, with the registrar of titles remaining under state control and the government adopting an oversight role.
A number of states have moved to offload registries to top up their coffers, with South Australia selling its registry for $1.6 billion in a 40-year deal to Macquarie Group’s MIRA and Canadian pension fund PSP Investments, and New South Wales selling its registry in April last year for $2.6 billion.
The Victorian government is hoping to land at least $2 billion as part of the sale, and confirmed its intentions in last month’s state budget.
“Following the completion of a scoping study, the government announced it will commercialise land titles and registry functions of Land Use Victoria in 2018. The commercialisation is expected to better respond to customer demand for technology-driven services through private sector innovation and investment. The proceeds will be recycled into the state’s record infrastructure investment program,” the budget said.
The three main contenders for the lease appear to be Australia’s Macquarie and First State Super, and Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Infrastructure.
A number of legal, social and digital rights groups have opposed the move, expressing “serious concerns” over the security and privacy of the registry, and the risks in handing over the valuable data to private companies.
“Not only will our land registry details by at the mercy of a private third party, but so too will the significant volume of sensitive data that sits behind each transaction: full name, date of birth, addresses, consideration, not to mention the metadata attached to search functions performed through the LUV,” the Law Institute of Victoria said.
“The privatisation of the system lends itself to exploitation and fraud, in addition to the inadvertent disclosure of private details. With 855,000 transfers, mortgages and mortgage discharges registered in the 2015-16 financial year, that is a lot of data that could fall into someone else’s hands, to be held to ransom, or sold as an additional source of revenue.”
Addressing Parliament last week on the motion, Greens state leader Dr Samantha Ratnam listed the security of the data as a prime reason behind the need for the inquiry.
“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.
Law Institute of Victoria president Belinda Wilson backed up these concerns in a submission to government late last year.
“The Victorian land registry houses a significant volume of highly sensitive personal data relating to property titles. 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.
Liberal MP Gordon Rich-Phillips also spoke in Parliament in support of the inquiry.
“These are elements such as the ongoing integrity of the land use system, issues around privacy and security of the data that is held by Land Use Victoria, potential implications on cost and service levels and issues around employment and the proposed transaction,” Mr Rich-Phillips said.
“It is an unusual asset recycling exercise, given the nature of Land Use Victoria and the importance of integrity of that data, and I think that the Parliament, and by extension the Victorian population, will benefit by having some assurance of the matters that are canvassed in the terms of reference. For that reason, the Coalition will not oppose this referral.”
State government parliamentary secretary for treasury and finance Daniel Mulino spoke against the motion, saying that there were a “number of protections” put in place to protect the data.
“When it comes to data security the state will retain ownership over all registry data. Any information accessed by the private operator will be subject to all relevant privacy and data protections laws and regulations in addition to strict contractual obligations, including stringent data integrity and security key performance indicators,” Mr Mulino said.
“The data must be stored in Australia, and the state will retain step-in rights to protect data and to enforce compliance with data privacy and protection laws. Land registry and valuation information now available to the public will continue to be available to the public, so there will be no change whatsoever in that aspect of its operation.”
The motion for the inquiry was supported by 22 votes to 17, and the committee has been tasked with delivering a report to government by 7 August.
The state government also criticised the timing of the inquiry, with Mr Mulino claiming it could jeopardise the sale, which is in its final stages, and would have been more useful four months ago.
“We are now at the point where the work is finished, the transaction is well underway and indeed the transaction is at a very sensitive point – we are in the middle of commercially sensitive negotiations – so there is just nothing to be added by this inquiry at this point in time,” he said.
“To undertake this inquiry right at this point, when the government is actually going to be constrained by the commercial sensitivities of the negotiations from saying anything in the public realm makes this potential inquiry, frankly, a useless one and potentially worse than useless – potentially actually damaging to the state’s commercial interests.”