Australian government to review digital privacy protection

In the wake of the NSA PRISM scandal, Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has called for the Australian Law Reform Commission to review privacy protection.

Less than a week after National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed a secret surveillance program allegedly providing access to the customer data of some of the world's biggest technology companies, the Australian government has announced an inquiry into the protection of privacy in the digital era.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) with a broad review of privacy law, including looking at, among other things, the growth in surveillance in technology, community perception of privacy, and international standards for privacy.

"I am asking the Australian Law Reform Commission to consider this issue in light of changing conceptions of community privacy and rapid growth in information technology capabilities," Dreyfus said.

"The government strongly believes in protecting the privacy of individuals, but this must be balanced against the Australian public's right to freedom of communication and expression."

Although not specifically mentioned in the announcement, the timing of the review coinciding with controversy over the NSA's alleged access to private user data from tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft is likely to make the matter the centrepiece of the review.

Dreyfus said that privacy often has to be counterbalanced with law enforcement and national security, but that he doesn't think the online era means the death of privacy.

"What I have learned in my time as attorney-general is that reports about the death of privacy are grossly exaggerated," he said.

"It is clear to me that Australians feel very strongly about the protection of their privacy. I'm yet to receive a letter from an individual complaining that they receive too much privacy."

He said Australians are becoming very familiar with privacy rights, and he hopes that government reforms of privacy law would build confidence in the protection of privacy in Australia.

"My hope is that the new reforms will build even more confidence in the Australian community about the privacy practices of government agencies and businesses by facilitating even more open, transparent, and secure handling practices involving personal information," he said.

Yesterday, Dreyfus would not say whether the US intelligence agencies have shared information with the Australian government gains from the PRISM program, but said that Australians would be concerned about the protection of the privacy of their data hosted overseas.

"All Australians would be concerned at the potential for their privacy to be invaded through what other countries are doing, where Australians' personal data is being stored offshore, be that in big servers somewhere in the world," he reportedly said.

The ALRC will report back to the government in June 2014.