How the law allows governments to publish your private information



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Controversy has recently surrounded Centrelink and its handling of ‘overpayments’ and personal information.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

Recent controversy over the government’s use of information provided to Human Services and Veterans’ Affairs demonstrates there are major holes in Australia’s privacy regime that we need to fix. The Conversation

Australians are accustomed to providing personal information to federal and state governments. We do it repeatedly throughout our lives. We do so to claim entitlements. We also do so as the basis of public administration – the contemporary “information state”.

In making that state possible we trust we will not be treated as a file number or an incident. We will not be doxed.

A key aspect of that trust, consistent with international rights law since the 1940s, is that our privacy will be protected. We assume officials – and private sector entities they use as their agents – will not be negligent in safeguarding personal information.

We also assume they will not share personal information with other agencies unless there is a substantive need for that sharing – for example, for national security or to prevent harm to an individual. And we expect they will not disclose personal information to the media or directly to the community at large as a way of silencing criticism or resolving disputes.

Australia has a sophisticated body of administrative law and ombudsmen. So, there is no need for public shaming of people who disagree with ministers, officials or databases.

The complicated and inconsistent body of privacy law highlighted by law reform commissions over the past two decades attempts to provide legal protection for personal information. It is overseen by under-resourced watchdogs that – amid threats of termination – are inclined to lick the ministerial hand that feeds them.

That law has major weaknesses, illustrated by the Centrelink controversy and the furore over the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill. The Commonwealth is able to ignore ostensible protections under the Privacy Act and other statutes. That is quite lawful. It has been so for many years, evident in the watchdog’s finding in L v Commonwealth Agency.

The watchdog’s guidelines state that where someone:

… makes adverse comments in the media about the way [a body] has treated them … it may be reasonable to expect that the entity may respond publicly to these comments in a way that reveals personal information specifically relevant to the issues that the individual has raised.

Put simply, if you complain publicly about a Commonwealth agency that holds personal information relating to you, that agency can lawfully give the information to the media or publish it directly. It can do so to correct what the minister deems to be “misinformation”.

There is no requirement that your complaint be malicious, fraudulent, vexatious or otherwise wrong. Disclosure is at the minister’s discretion, not subject to independent review. You have no legal remedies unless it could be proved that the official was malicious or corrupt.

We have seen such a disclosure. The Department of Human Services gave personal information to a journalist for publication about a person who disagreed with action by Centrelink to recover an alleged overpayment of an entitlement.

There has been much discussion in the media and the national parliament about the vigour with which the government is seeking to recover overpayments. Worryingly, it remains uncertain whether many of the alleged overpayments actually exist.

Ongoing changes to entitlements policy, the hollowing out of key agencies by the annual “efficiency dividend” (that is, ongoing cuts to budgets) and problematical design and management of very large information technology projects mean overpayments might not have occurred.

Public disclosure of someone’s personal information thus looks very much like bullying, if not a deliberate effort to chill legitimate criticism and discussion of publicly funded programs.

The veterans’ affairs minister and the shadow minister have apparently not done their homework. The new Digital Readiness Bill – passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate – allows the minister to publicly disclose medical and other personal information about veterans. The rationale for that disclosure is to correct misinformation.

Understandably, veterans are unhappy. Legal practitioners and academics wonder about the scope for public shaming through release of department information that might not be correct.

The national Privacy Commissioner has been complacent. Labor’s veterans’ affairs spokeswoman, Amanda Rishworth, has belatedly expressed concern. The minister has simply referred to the establishment of an independent review by the Australian Government Solicitor and his department. It is difficult to understand why privacy wasn’t properly considered before the bill went into parliament.

There are too many loopholes in Australia’s privacy regime. Government agencies also need to toughen up in the face of criticism – legitimate or otherwise – and not respond by bullying people through publication of personal information.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Digital Privacy Is “The New Frontier Of Human Rights”


TechCrunch

The impact of mass, digitally-enabled state surveillance upon individuals’ privacy has been described as “the new frontier of human rights” by Member of the European Parliament, Claude Moraes, who was giving an annual lecture on behalf of the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy at the London School of Economics on Friday.

Moraes is chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), which conducted an inquiry into electronic mass surveillance of European Union citizens last year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s digital dragnets.

Moraes said there is a growing understanding among members of the European Parliament of the need to balance state surveillance practices with individual privacy rights, although he noted there is variation at the level of individual MEPs and Member States, with some (such as the U.K.) taking a far more pro-surveillance and anti-privacy position.

He described the notion that there is an either/or dichotomy…

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Facebook Admits Users Are Confused About Privacy, Will Show More On-Screen Explanations


TechCrunch

Facebook today offered reporters a deep dive on how it handles privacy and previewed some upcoming changes. The company revealed it does 80 trillion privacy checks per day on the backend to make sure data isn’t wrongly exposed. It runs 4000 surveys about privacy per day which pushed it to now begin displaying on-screen descriptions of how privacy controls work, including for status update audience selectors and resharing.

Facebook used to have every team work on its own privacy functionality, and then would have dedicated teams for privacy sprints around specific privacy changes. But as the company grew, two specific privacy teams evolved. One is the Privacy Product Engineering team that builds the settings that let users control who sees their content. The other is the Privacy Infrastructure Engineering team, which “helps engineers move the fast and build things” while still being confident there will be no privacy breaches, says Privacy…

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Through a PRISM darkly: Tracking the ongoing NSA surveillance story


Gigaom

It was a relatively quiet week for internet news until Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald dropped a bombshell on Thursday, with a story that showed the National Security Agency was collecting data from Verizon thanks to a secret court order. But that was just the beginning: the Washington Post later revealed an even broader program of surveillance code-named PRISM, which involved data collection from the web’s largest players — including Google (s goog), Facebook (s fb) and Apple (s aapl) — and then the Wall Street Journal said data is also being gathered from ISPs and credit-card companies.

This story is moving so quickly that it is hard to keep a handle on all of the developments, not to mention trying to follow the denials and non-denials from those who are allegedly involved, and the threads that tie this particular story to the long and sordid history of the U.S. government’s…

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Why Facebook Home bothers me: It destroys any notion of privacy


Gigaom

23-remake-of-path-menuOne of the great things about attending Facebook’s events is that one gets to see Mark Zuckerberg mature as a chief executive and hone his presentation skills. And today, he didn’t disappoint in his ability to spin the media corps. It was all claps for “four colors on HTC First” and ideas “inspired” by the likes of Amazon Kindle (ads) and Path. But what he did most brilliantly was obfuscate the difference between an app (Home), the user experience layer and the operating system.

Zuckerberg did that for two reasons: First, to buy his company time to build a proper OS that will come to us in dribs and drabs and then will wash over us suddenly, like a riptide. And secondly, to convince people that “Home” is just like any other app. Unfortunately, Facebook’s Home is not as benign as that.

In fact, Facebook Home should put privacy advocates on…

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Blind Chinese human rights defender still under house arrest


ChinaAid (www.chinaaid.org ) reports that after blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng was recently interviewed by a Chinese radio reporter, media lost direct contact with him and his wife, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

However, says ChinaAid, one of their friends, Zeng Jinyan, mentioned in her blog that she had contacted Chen and his wife on September 23. Since that date, there has been no word from them.

Radio Free Asia reporter Zhang Min interviewed Chen on September 13 and provided the information to ChinaAid.

Since then, ChinaAid reports, family friend Zeng Jinyan wrote in her blog, “Chen Guangcheng’s mother-in-law recently visited Chen in his home. When she arrived, she was physically searched by government-paid guards keeping Chen’s family under house arrest. A few days before, on the September 20, the local communist leader of the town invaded Chen’s home with at least 4 policemen and over 20 guards. They stayed there for six hours.”

ChinaAid says the guards on watch currently have free rein of Chen’s house, intruding any time they wish. Not only have they invaded the family’s privacy — they also threatened them, saying, “Don’t you really know who holds your little life in their hands?”

ChinaAid went on to add that the local government forced Chen to cut off all external communications. The guards do not allow Chen or his wife out of their house. The family relies on Chen’s 78-year-old mother, the only one who is allowed to go out, to buy their food. The guards have even forbidden Chen’s 5-year-old daughter from going to school.

ChianAid explained that Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng, both Christian human rights defenders who continue to suffer for their work, were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The award was made on October 8, 2010, to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was honored for "Struggle for Fundamental Human Rights." He was given the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights" — a prize that enraged the Chinese government, which had warned the Nobel committee not to honor him. China officially denounced the award as "Blasphemy."

In a year with a record 237 nominations for the peace prize, Liu had been considered a favorite, with open support from winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and others.

In the case of Guangcheng, ChinaAid "insists that the local authorities cease their invasive control of Chen and his family," and asks concerned Christians to join them in praying for their freedom and safety.

ChinaAid had also prayed the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to Chen Guangcheng or Gao Zhisheng, who have both suffered under the hands of Chinese authorities.

ChianAid had earlier said: "Such an award would be an incredible encouragement and source of hope to every human rights lawyer in China."

Report from the Christian Telegraph