Almost all Australians want more control and choice over the collection and use of their data as trust in organisations to handle personal information continues to decline.

That’s one of the key takeaways from the national privacy regulator’s major survey, released today, as it prepares to reshape Australia’s laws for the first time in decades.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s wide ranging survey on Australian attitudes to privacy has been running since 2001 and this year’s was the first since 2017. It shows another decline in citizens’ confidence in organisations to do the right thing when handling personal information and concerns about the impact of new technologies like AI.

70 per cent of Australians say the protection of their personal information is a “major concern in their life” while 87 per cent want more choice and control over their personal information.

Most of the 2,800 adults surveyed in April this year said they are uncomfortable with many of the common data collection practices of platforms, online businesses and digital marketers.

62 per cent said they were uncomfortable with location tracking through browsers, and with businesses keeping databases on what they have said and done online. More than half of those respondents said they are “very uncomfortable” with the practices.

Targeted advertising, the practice which has turned technology companies like Facebook and Google into global behemoths, is also concerning Australians citizens. 58 per cent say they are uncomfortable with the practice including 31 per cent being “very uncomfortable”

Evidence for reforms

“Our survey shows data privacy is a significant concern for Australians, particularly as the digital environment and data practices evolve rapidly,” said Privacy and Information Commissioner Angelene Falk.

“The community sees identity theft and fraud, and data breaches and security, as the biggest privacy risks we face today.”

Privacy and Information Commissioner Angelene Falk.

More than half (58 per cent) of respondents identified digital services like social media as one of the biggest risks to privacy. Smartphone apps (49 per cent) and surveillance by foreign entities (35 per cent) and domestic ones (26 per cent) were the other major risks to privacy

Falk said the survey findings will contribute to the regulator’s input on the upcoming review of the Australian Privacy Act and the development of a code of conduct for digital platforms, some of the government’s responses to the landmark digital platforms inquiry.

While the EU and some US states have introduced tougher data collection and processing regulations in recent years, Australia has relied on legislation developed in the 1980s and a regulator that is only this year conducting its first federal court challenge to an entity for breaching it.

The Attorney-General’s Department will lead a review of the legislation and the federal Government has also committed to a new system of fines and penalties for interference with privacy. 

Tech threats

Artificial Intelligence and biometric data are also a significant threat to privacy, according to the survey.

Two thirds of Australians say they are reluctant to provide biometric information to a business, organisation or government agency. A quarter say it is the data type they are least willing to provide.

Governments still enjoy twice the amount of trust in handling biometric than businesses,  and 40 per cent of respondents rate businesses as completely untrustworthy with it.

Australians also show some acceptance of surveillance technologies, with more than half saying they are comfortable with law enforcement using facial recognition to identify suspects and with governments using surveillance for public safety.

Opinions on the use of AI are more certain, with Australians showing a clear desire for transparency in its use.

24 per cent feel AI is one of the biggest privacy risks facing Australians today. 77 per cent say they consider the use of AI without their knowledge to be a misuse of their personal information. 84 per cent agree that they have a right to know if a decision affecting them is made using AI technology.

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