New South Wales Privacy Commissioner Dr Elizabeth Coombs has said that the Royal Commission into child sex abuse in Australia will test the relationship between open government and ensuring privacy.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week announced that the government will conduct a broad-ranging Royal Commission inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse claims. The inquiry was launched after accusations mounted of cover-ups of child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Australia. It is expected that the Royal Commission will take years, with the terms of reference not to be finalised until the end of 2012.
Coombs, who was appointed as the commissioner in 2011, told the International Association of Privacy Professionals' (IAPP) Privacy Summit today that Ireland encountered issues in its inquiry into child sexual abuse in drawing a line between ensuring that the inquiry could do its job and protecting the information of the victims.
"One of the very unexpected consequences was the absolute demand for good records, or the ability to access information so they could do the inquiry. [There was] a lot of concerns and issues about the protection of personal information," she said.
The Australian government will also encounter similar issues, she said.
"We're expecting that there will be that same sort of demand for information, but also concerns about what information is being released. It is something that is going to become a very significant issue in the coming year."
Coombs said that it is absolutely essential for accountable, open governments to maintain the privacy of personal information, and to ensure that one does not come at the cost of the other.
"Access to information and protection of personal information are not necessarily opposed. Both are key tenets of a strong democracy," she said. "And they can work in balance together."
Coombs said that the most challenging case she has dealt with was in deciding whether to publish comments on property development proposals online. On the one hand, she said, it is important to see who is criticising what, and whether they have a vested interest in disputing the proposal; but, on the other hand, people are very passionate about property development.
"Issues of disputes around property development can be very hotly contested, and sometimes get very argumentative," she said, adding that some are concerned about their safety.
"Women who live alone and want to make an issue feel very vulnerable with their name and address and other details provided."
Coombs said that over the next 12 months, her office will be looking to "undertake a far better structure engagement with the community around access to data and protection of data."