Australia’s national privacy regulator has said the conditions forced by the current pandemic have highlighted the value of online privacy.

The watchdog also shared early findings from a major survey of Australian citizens’ attitude to privacy and revealed digital platforms will be under renewed scrutiny for their privacy practices in a “significant year for privacy reform in Australia”.

In an address to launch privacy awareness week 2020, Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said while online privacy has been a focus for the regulator, COVID-19 and the subsequent shift to remote work and learning has underscored its importance.

“In all the stories of tenacity, courage, heartbreak and innovation that are emerging from the health crisis, what also stands out to me is how the pandemic response is drawing more attention to our fundamental human right of privacy,” Falk said in a pre recorded speech this week.

Falk said regulators and privacy advocates had an important role to play in the pandemic because such events threatened rights to privacy, often in the form of disaster and economic recovery.

“It is part of addressing this health crisis, and ensuring that we emerge from the pandemic with our rights protected.

“Privacy laws both enable agile, innovative responses to protect the public interest and protect our fundamental rights. This has never been more evident.”

So far the biggest concern for privacy advocates during COVID-19 has been the launch of the federal government’s contact tracing app, COVIDSafe. Already downloaded 5 million people, the app uses bluetooth to log the interactions of users with each other, with the information to be used state health authorities to trace the interactions of individuals which contract coronavirus.

While the app has several privacy protections and has been endorsed by the national privacy regulator, critics are still concerned about a lack of promised source code, no legislative protections until Parliament returns,  its centralised model and the deal with US tech giant Amazon to store the data. 

While Falk did not directly address the app in her speech she did note how regulators and privacy professionals were “having to respond rapidly to privacy issues emerging in our new environment, as governments and business seek solutions to these public health and economic problems”.

“It is part of addressing this health crisis, and ensuring that we emerge from the pandemic with our rights protected,” Fallk said.

Australian attitudes to online privacy 

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner will release its major survey on Australians attitudes to privacy this year, the first such survey since 2017. But Falk shared some results she said demonstrated how Australians feel about privacy, including:

“The great majority – 87 per cent of people – are telling us they want more control and choice over the collection and use of their personal information.

“One in three (34 per cent) feel they are in control of their privacy, while just as many (34 per cent) do not.

“We also heard that three in five Australians care about data privacy, but are unclear what to do about it.”

Falk said Australians do not generally review privacy policies because they are “too long and too hard to read” and want clearer policies which include a plain English summary.

The regulator said the data provides “very clear signals” to regulated entities about what the community expects and the findings would inform her regulatory approach.

Regulator eyes platform giants

Falk went on to outline her office’s priorities and agenda for the year ahead, flagging the security of personal information, the practices of digital platforms, and the OAIC’s role in overseeing Australia’s Consumer Data Right.

“We will be focusing on policies, notices, default settings and consent, and technologies that employ opaque information sharing practices,” she said.

Digital platforms have become a significant focus for regulatory reform in Australia, Falk said in a nod to the ACCC’s landmark inquiry last year and the ongoing government response which includes a binding privacy code for the sector and a broad review of the Australian Privacy Act – decades old legislation which has been exploited by some data collectors.

Falk argued the reforms should not be sacrificed in any attempt to accelerate the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

“These privacy discussions and reforms are still needed, and we should not lose sight of them as we start to make the journey home after the COVID outbreak.”

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