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Researcher says Australian parliaments have failed to protect privacy for 14 years

Sleepwalking into the surveillance state

Long-time – and by now somewhat despondent – privacy advocate Roger Clarke says successive Australian governments have ignored the privacy impacts of nearly every national security measure passed by parliament since 2001.

In this analysis of 72 items of legislation, Clarke finds only around 10 per cent received the normal parliamentary privacy scrutiny.

Privacy impact statements (PIAs) are part of the normal legislative process for any intrusive laws, but Clarke says such assessments have been largely ignored.

Clarke told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that only 20 of the 72 measures had any privacy assessment at all, and of those, half were conducted in secret, with no public consultation. Only three, Clarke says, completed the full process, and PIAs were only published for between five and seven measures.

The kinds of laws he's criticising include biometric data collection, data retention (sorry, metadata because in the confused and wandering mind of the legislature that's not “data”), and electronic eavesdropping.

The worst offender, his paper states, is the Attorney-General's department, since it's not obliged to undertake PIAs.

Speaking to Vulture South, Clarke said security legislation is most often driven by the public service, in particular by national security agencies, and parliaments seem either afraid to subject proposals to scrutiny, or support the proposals to appease media-stoked fears of terrorism.

“It's a grim story,” he said. “There's no supervision of any consequence.”

He noted that mechanisms which could help are being undermined by the current government: there's no long a freedom of information commissioner, and the role of information commissioner is currently filled on a stand-in basis by privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.

This is coupled by a lack of clear political legislative agendas by successive governments, he said, leaving parliaments subject to having their legislation dictated by the public sector.

Clarke also told The Register the parliamentary committee system, supposed to provide review of legislation, is increasingly being undermined or ignored. ®

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