Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has stated that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) may have difficulties in handling the increasing number of data breaches and privacy investigations due to the government's efficiency dividend.
The efficiency dividend seeks to reduce the amount of resources that the government uses to obtain the same output. An additional increase of 2.5 per cent to the existing 1.5 per cent efficiency dividend will come into effect in the next financial year. This may have negative consequences for the OAIC, which houses Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, Freedom of Information Commissioner James Popple and Information Commissioner John McMillan.
In a Senate Estimates hearing, Pilgrim said that as of last month, the OAIC has an average staffing level of about 80 full-time employees, and aims to deliver a $300,000 dividend. OAIC assistant commissioner of operations, Alison Leonard, said that the OAIC would do so through staff attrition and possible redundancies, as staff costs account for about 70 per cent of its expenses.
However, the privacy commissioner's workload has not remained steady or decreased, and Pilgrim said that a reduce in headcount could potentially have an affect on his organisation's abilities.
He said that the OAIC is seeing increases in contacts with the community, complaints and the number of investigations into data breaches. He also said that there is a growing need to provide more advice to the community, especially in relation to online activities.
Pilgrim further said that the office would continue to experience difficulty in predicting what level of activity to expect due to the scale of breaches like those with the Sony PlayStation Network (PSN), Vodafone and Telstra.
"Those sort of cases themselves can be time consuming to resolve, but can also be unpredictable in how many we will have in a year," he said.
"In terms of what we call our own motion investigations, a lot of those come through third-party sources, such as the media and the like, so it's hard to anticipate what the level will be at any particular time."
The situation for the privacy commissioner is made worse by the expenses incurred through the information commissioner and the freedom of information commissioner.
Under the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010, the OAIC was required to develop an Information Advisory Committee (IAC) to provide advice to the government. However, annual expenses for the IAC have blown out to $50,000 per year, because the cost of having to bring together experts from different states was underestimated. Popple said that any suggestion to reduce the number of IAC members would require a change to legislation, giving the OAIC limited options to reduce expenses.
The committee did not question whether savings could be made through teleconferencing, a measure that former Finance Minister Penny Wong said she saw as reducing or replacing domestic and international travel when the additional increase to the efficiency dividend is introduced.
Legislative red tape also appears to continue to hinder the privacy commissioner's progress on implementing additional privacy measures. When asked whether the OAIC has given any consideration to developing a code that includes a "do not track" model, Pilgrim said that it is still waiting on the outcome of the Privacy Act reform, as particulars of any such code would rely on changes to the Act.