Australians made over 3,000 privacy complaints last year

3,306 privacy complaints were made to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in 2018-19 and the commissioner has finally admitted her office needs more assistance.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The number of privacy-related complaints made by Australians increased by 12% in 2018-19, to 3,306, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) revealed this week.

According to the OAIC, the increase was driven by privacy practices of the finance industry, Australian government entities, health service providers, the telco industry, retail, and online services.

The finance industry accounted for 13% of total complaints, while the government came in at a close second, with 12% of complaints.

See also: Accidental personal info disclosure hit Australians 260,000 times last quarter

The most common issues raised with the OAIC were about use and disclosure, security, access, collection, and the quality of personal information, Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk told Senate Estimates on Tuesday, reading from the organisation's Annual Report [PDF].

"We can see globally the use of personal information increasing exponentially -- and of course there's great economic benefits to be achieved by the use of personal information, but at the same time, it needs to be kept secure and handled appropriately," Falk told Senators.  

"In terms of the online environment, there were a number of incidents that have occurred that have heightened the community's awareness to the collection of personal information, some relating to Facebeook for example, and also the ACCC has conducted an extensive enquiry into digital platforms."

See also: Australia stands up new ACCC branch to monitor Facebook and Google

Although 3,306 complaints were made during the financial year, only 2,920 have been finalised.

The average time to resolve a privacy complaint was 4.4 months.

During previous rounds of Senate Estimates, Falk was faced with questions regarding the OAIC's staffing numbers. In February, Senators raised concerns that the department was too under-resourced to handle its remit.

At the time, there were 784 freedom of information (FOI) Information Commissioner (IC) reviews on hand and 18 FOI matters that waited 11 months before being assigned a case officer.

Falk said in April the oldest FOI matter waiting allocation was submitted 11.9 months prior to its assignment.

As detailed this week, the total number of FOI requests to Australian government agencies and ministers grew by 13% in 2018-19 to 38,879. Of those, 83% were for documents containing personal information.

The Department of Home Affairs, Department of Human Services, and Department of Veterans' Affairs received 69% of all FOI requests last year, the OAIC said.

Falk said during Estimates that 52% of FOI requests were approved.  

The number of applications for an IC review of FOI decisions also increased, with 928 being made in 2018-19 -- a 16% increase.

"Over the past four years, the number of IC review applications has climbed by more than 80% overall," the OAIC said.

The top five agencies involved in IC reviews in 2018–19 were Home Affairs with 198, Human Services with 104, Veterans' Affairs with 47, the Australian Federal Police with 46, and the Department of Defence with 44.

"One of the main ways to reduce pressure on the FOI system is through more proactive publication of government information," Falk said.

"Combined with administrative access schemes, this will streamline agency operations and make more government information readily available to the community, which increases the transparency of public sector operations and decision-making.

"Encouraging proactive publication and timely processing of FOI requests is an ongoing priority for the OAIC."

On Tuesday, Falk said the substantial increase in all types of requests had widened the gap, resulting in increased delays and backlogs.

"Additional resources are required and the OAIC continues to work with government in relation to our resourcing needs," she said. 

"It's a matter that's been discussed on a number of occasions where I've indicated that, really, where the stresses in the system from the OAIC's perspective lie are with the need for more staffing. I've set out the fact that we've had an 80% increase in Information Commissioner reviews and I have worked very purposefully since being in the role in looking at how we can increase our efficiency. We have increased our efficiency by over 45%, but I've formed the view, having conducted a number of reviews in the way we work, that the only way in which the gap is to be bridged is for additional staffing resources to be provided.

"The government has acknowledged my request."

When asked how many more staff she would require, Falk said the more staff that are allowed to do IC reviews, the quicker they could be reviewed.

"There needs to be an increase in the staffing resources and the quantum of that does depend on the time in which the backlog is sought to be addressed, and also the ultimate goal of how quickly Information Commissioner reviews could be handled," she added.

Tight-lipped on what exactly she has asked for in terms of numbers, Falk said that currently, the OAIC's funding envelope allows for 19 case officers to work on FOI reviews. She said there would need to be at least a 50% increase. 


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