Australian govt could back Merkel data protection agreement

Stresses need for balance between national security and citizens’ privacy amid push for creation of mandatory data breach notification laws

The Federal Government has not ruled out participating in a global data protection agreement, amid its own push to strengthen Australia's existing privacy laws.

The agreement, which would be modelled on the Kyoto Protocol and is understood to initially encompass European nations, was put forward by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel in the wake of revelations of the extent of the National Security Agency's PRISM surveillance program .

In a statement to ZDNet, the office of the Australian Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, said that while the government was yet to receive a briefing on the full extent of Merkel's proposal, it would consider "any further information as it become available."

The spokesperson said the government strongly supported the "protection of communications and personal information held by private and public sector organisations" but argued that a balance had to be struck between citizens' privacy and the need of spy agencies to gather information for national security purposes.

"Australia's privacy and telecommunications laws recognise both the right to privacy need for high standards of privacy protection but also that, in certain circumstances, it is necessary for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect, use and disclose personal information for law enforcement and national security purposes," the spokesperson said.

For its part, Australia's top law enforcement agency, the Australian Federal Police, has played down public fears about diminishing privacy protections and has denied receiving any information from PRISM or similar programs.

The AFP's commissioner, Tony Negus, has also said that there are no links between US government surveillance programs and a shelved plan to keep phone and internet browsing records in Australia for up to two years.

Amid the distancing from the PRISM program, the Attorney General's office claimed the government was working to strengthen citizen's privacy through its push to have its Privacy Amendment (Privacy Alerts) Bill 2013 passed.

"The Privacy Alerts Bill, which is currently before the Senate, would require agencies and organisations to notify people affected by a data breach and the Privacy Commissioner," the spokesperson said.   "This bill, if passed, will act as an incentive for holders of information to make sure that the data they hold, is secure."

The bill, if introduced, would amend the Privacy Act 1988 to allow the introduction of mandatory data breach notification provisions for agencies and organisations that are regulated by the Act.

In a statement to ZDNet, Opposition communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, did not directly address the question of whether the Opposition in government would support Merkel's global data protection deal. However, he said that the digitisation of global economies meant that "the need for a cyber-equivalent of an arms limitation agreement" became more urgent.

"All countries have a strong mutual interest in agreeing on some ground rules for cyber surveillance which protects personal privacy, intellectual property while at the same time enabling security agencies to protect societies against terrorism and crime," he said.

"Getting the balance right is important but we have to begin the discussion and do so soon, and with candour."

Show Comments