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​Australia called out as willing to undermine human rights for digital agenda

A report from AccessNow has asked Australia to change its course and lead the way in serving as a champion for human rights instead of against.

Global human rights, public policy, and advocacy group AccessNow has called out Australia for its lack of focus on human rights as it adapts to the challenges of the digital era, with a report from the non-profit saying the country should instead be leading the way in serving as a champion for human rights.

"Australia should be a global leader in serving as a champion for human rights, such as the right to privacy and rights to freedoms of expression and association," AccessNow said. "Unfortunately, Australia has taken actions that indicate the nation is willing to undermine human rights as it adapts to the challenges of the digital era."

In Human Rights in the Digital Era: An International Perspective on Australia [PDF], AccessNow says that as the digital world continues to develop, and technology increasingly becomes an "intimate part" of daily lives, Australians are facing a choice.

"The country can either continue to be a testing ground for policies that undermine privacy and security in the digital era, or it can be a champion for human rights in the digital age, leveraging its relationships in the world to raise the standards for the next generation," the report says.

Pointing to the impending "encryption" legislation the federal government said over a year ago it would be soon introducing, AccessNow has asked that Australia act as a global leader in "decisively ending the government's pursuit of legislation to undermine encryption or force developers to modify their products to ensure law enforcement or intelligence access" and not ask technology companies to break encryption.

It recommends instead the establishment of a vulnerabilities disclosure process and that Australia invests in research and development on encryption and digital security.

Further on government surveillance, the report discusses the country's Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979, the Telecommunications Act 1997, the Surveillance Devices Act 2004, and the so-called terror laws of 2014-2015, including the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, as highlighting that Australia has one of the most extensive surveillance schemes in the world.

As a result, AccessNow asks that the government conducts a full human rights impact assessment of current surveillance laws and practices before any new surveillance authorities or programs are implemented.

Read more: Legislation for Australian automated facial recognition enters Parliament

It also called on the government to prohibit the use of biometric tools, including facial recognition, for crowd-tracking and monitoring. However, where biometric information is collected and stored, AccessNow requests that it be secured, decentralised, and subject to data protection safeguards, including rights to notice and correct.

"Australia has expanded its surveillance laws and practices more since 9/11 than any other nation," the report says. "It is undoubtedly true that there are security threats created or facilitated by the existence of technology, including the internet, and, as in the physical world, responding to these threats is the responsibility of government.

"However, government is also responsible for recognising and taking action to protect human rights, just as it was before the rise of modern technologies."

On the topic of data protection, AccessNow said that despite Australians highlighting their concerns over who has access to their information, Australia has "never established a legal right to privacy".

See more: Privacy Foundation: Trusting government with open data a 'recipe for pain'

"Moreover, while most Australian states and territories have their own data protection laws, the patchwork is inadequate to ensure that personal data is actually protected," the report says. "Some additional protections exist in state and federal laws in specific sectors, but their applications are fairly narrow. The Privacy Act 1988 affords some protections to privacy and data in the form of the 'Australian Privacy Principles', but these, too, fall short because they fail to provide affirmative rights or obligations."

As a result, AccessNow has asked for the establishment of clear rights to privacy and data protection in Australian law or within a Bill of Rights, including statutory avenues for seeking remedy and redress.

It also wants Australia to pursue a federal data protection law that provides clear, affirmative rights for individuals and obligations for all entities that process data.

Where cybersecurity is concerned, the report asks for the government to commit to building cybersecurity policies and practices around central tenets of human rights, including the right to privacy.

It also recommends evaluating government hacking law and practices, and strengthening data breach notification in Australia to "ensure full compliance by the public and private sectors".

Lastly, AccessNow has called on the government to ensure all Australians have access to the internet and for it to "unequivocally condemn internet shutdowns, particularly in countries that rely on Australian infrastructure".

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