Vic land titles’ data concerns

James Riley
Editorial Director

There are “significant” privacy, data security and transparency concerns surrounding the Victorian government’s sale of the land titles registry, a standing committee has found.

The Environment and Planning Committee tabled its rushed report on the state government’s planned long-term lease of the land titles and registry functions of Land Use Victoria last week, including eight findings and 14 recommendations.

The inquiry was launched in late May following concerns about the privatisation of the service and the impact of this on privacy and data security, among other issues. The state confirmed its intentions to sell the lease in this year’s budget, and is believed to be seeking at least $2 billion.

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Committee chair David Davis said the inquiry had looked to work with the government – not against it – and there had already been a “significant response” by the Andrews government.

“The Committee has adopted a constructive approach seeking to work with government in its process of commercialisation and to make constructive suggestions for improvements in the model proposed. We’ve made recommendations on enhanced privacy and reporting and in favour of greater transparency,” Mr Davis said.

“There are significant privacy concerns, and we have made commentary about that.”

“Those privacy concerns are real, and I thank the privacy commissioner and the officials in that office that have provided significant information to the committee.”

The recommendations to government include that the details of the selected provider and sale be made public as soon as it is completed, and that it “prepares and publishes clear information regarding the information rights of Victorians”.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) raised a number of issues relating to the commercialisation, which it said would remove many of the current privacy and security oversight functions, and hamper the general public’s ability to access information.

A data breach involving data stored on the registry would be “significant”, and the new buyer must prepare “clear communication about the new arrangements” and be subject to mandatory data breach notification obligations and conduct privacy impact assessments on any new services, OVIC said.

To address some of the privacy and data rights concerns, the committee recommended that future legislative changes would be needed to address areas where “contractual protections to privacy and data security do not go far enough in contrast to legislative protections”. It also recommended that government require the private operator to work with OVIC directly and be required to report a data breach to the government and OVIC.

The inquiry heard a number of concerns around the impact the proposed commercialisation would have on privacy, data protection and information rights.

The registry includes first and last names, telephone numbers, residential and postal addresses, banking institutions, financial information and property details”.

To help protect this data, the report recommended that the state government impose “contractually enforceable obligations on the private operator relating to privacy, security and data protection”, including that the data must be stored in Australia.

“The complexities surrounding where oversight for data protection and security will fall, be that with the government, OVIC or the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, presents a challenge for individuals who interact with the private operator,” the report said.

The report also found that OVIC may have a “limited capacity to investigate matters” and may have to rely on the Registry in its intermediary role to directly access the private operator.

It also recommended that the winning bidder be required to address Freedom of Information requests, and for this to be baked into the contract.

The state government said it had already modified some of the proposal to address these issues, and there are a number of safeguards in place to protect the valuable data.

“There are appropriate privacy and data integrity safeguards which have been included in the model and that the functions of Land Use Victoria that cannot responsibly be commercialised are retained by the state,” parliamentary secretary for treasury and finance Daniel Mulino said in Parliament.

Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam led the motion for the inquiry, and in a minority report, said that of the 70 submissions received, 63 opposed the privatisation and four were neutral, with only three supporting it, including one from the state government.

“While the government has sought to reassure those concerned about data privacy and security with requirements that a future operator comply with Victorian Protective Data Security Standards, and information Privacy Principles, the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner submitted that the proposed commercialisation arrangements would reduce Parliamentary scrutiny over the changes to information rights,” Dr Ratnam said in the report.

“The government has not provided a compelling reason as to why they have chosen to regulate this privatisation through contracts versus legislation despite the increased safeguards for the public that would result from legislation.”

The commercialisation of the Victorian land titles registry is likely to occur around the same time that the use of digitised settlement services becomes mandatory, despite recent privacy concerns surrounding the only provider of this service, PEXA.

Mr Davis said that this “carriers significant risks”, while Dr Ratnam said more needs to be done to address these privacy concerns.

“We have seen what has happened with the PEXA system, with costs starting to increase already. We saw data breaches recently with the e-conveyance system – the PEXA system, once again. We heard during the inquiry that PEXA said, well, it wasn’t our breach, it was a system weakness elsewhere’, but Victorians just do not buy that,” Dr Ratnam said.

“This valuable land data should be protected in the public’s interest, and that has not been guaranteed. Data security issues were at the forefront of the inquiry, and we looked at questions about information privacy and integrity.”

The committee’s report said the concerns surrounding PEXA may impact the public’s support for the commercialisation of the land titles system.

“While acknowledging that the digitisation of the conveyancing system and the commercialisation of the land titles system are separate developments, the committee is concerned that identified deficiencies in the PEXA system risk affecting consumer confidence in both the conveyancing and land titles system,” it said.

Despite these data and security concerns, the report also recommended that the potential value and use of the land titles data be considered more closely by the state government.

“The Andrews Labor government seems not to have considered the importance of government data – appropriately de-identified – being used as an instrument of economic policy to drive a range of often yet to be developed uses for publicly collected data,” the report said.

“The innovation of the commercial operator should be accepted in my view as an advantage of the commercialisation, but it is a different usage of the data than that stimulated by the release of free of charge government-derived data sets.”

With the inquiry only launched less than four months ago, the chair acknowledged that there were “significant time pressures” in delivering it on time, with this “necessarily limiting the level of detail into which the inquiry could go”.

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