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Draft legislation proposed by Federal Government would allow your personal data to be shared between government agencies

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 15/09/2020 By political reporter Melissa Clarke
a close up of a person using a laptop: The Data Availability and Transparency Bill would override the current laws that govern the way government bodies collect and use data. (Pixabay) © Provided by ABC NEWS The Data Availability and Transparency Bill would override the current laws that govern the way government bodies collect and use data. (Pixabay)

If it sometimes seems like different arms of the government don't talk to each other, it might be because they can't.

There are a raft of laws covering departments, agencies and other government bodies that mean they can't share the data they collect about you.

It's designed to protect your privacy, but the Federal Government thinks it's outdated and has drafted legislation to allow more data-sharing.

The Data Availability and Transparency Bill would override the different laws and provisions covering data collected by government bodies.

Instead, the National Data Commissioner would oversee a regime to allows data-sharing across the public sector, provided various protections are kept in place.

That would include the likes of Centrelink, the Australian Tax Office, the Department of Home Affairs Department and the Bureau of Statistics, as well as bodies such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

But it could also see public sector information shared with other "accredited" bodies, including universities, think-tanks, businesses and not-for-profit groups.

Government departments and agencies would only be able to share data for three purposes: to deliver government services, to help develop government policies, and for research and development.

The bill specifically excludes sharing information for the purposes of law enforcement, compliance, national security and targeted commercial marketing.

The Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert says it will allow government agencies to streamline their services and cut down on duplication.

"If you apply for a Disability Support Pension, we will ask you a whole range of questions — some of them quite intrusive and difficult, for obvious reasons."

"And then we'll do exactly the same thing if you are applying for NDIS and then we'll do the same thing when you apply for the age pension."

"So, it's designed to remove all of those impediments."

Well, there's not a lot of trust in government departments and agencies to handle sensitive personal data.

Privacy advocates have pointed to a blunder by the Health Department in 2016 that meant personal Medicare information could be extracted from data published online as an example of what could go wrong.

They also point to the growing number of government agencies allowed to access people's metadata as evidence privacy protections aren't always as strong as they seem.

Each of the organisations involved would be responsible for having strong privacy safeguards for personal information and report any breaches.

They'd be expected to provide specific data to other departments and agencies, not just hand over all their information.

There are fines and even jail terms for people who misuse personal data.

Digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) is concerned there is no way for individuals to object or appeal decisions to share data across the public sector.

There's also no provision for judicial review, with the regime to be overseen by the independent National Data Commissioner.

EFA board member Justin Warren suggests the Federal Government follow up an Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation to establish a tort of privacy, which would allow someone to seek civil damages if their privacy is breached.

"That would go a long way to providing us with some recourse — and some deterrence — for entities that don't do this (privacy protection) well."

There's not much you can do, if this becomes law.

The Federal Government considered the idea of consent when consulting on the issue before drafting the legislation.

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has told the ABC consent is implied when someone uses a government service.

"If an Australian wants a service by a government, they obviously have to consent to having that service delivered to them," he said.

"If they don't want a service (from) government, they don't have to."

There's nothing in this legislation that gives Australians more access to government data.

"They want to share data between government entities about citizens, what about the other way?" EFA's Justin Warren asks.

"Data about individuals — you and me — is quite sensitive and has lots of privacy implication," he said.

"But there is lots of data about government that could be made more available that doesn't have any of the same safety or security problems that data about individuals does."

He believes the Government should be focusing on sharing the non-personal data, such as making public how much money is spent on social security every week, or publishing more frequent inflation data.

The Federal Government will be taking feedback on the draft law for the next eight weeks and hopes to introduce it to parliament early next year.

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