Brandis to criminalise re-identifying anonymous data under Privacy Act

The Australian government will introduce amendments to the Privacy Act to criminalise the re-identification of de-identified data, with the law to take effect from Wednesday.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has said the government will introduce legislation to amend the Privacy Act for the purposes of protecting anonymised datasets that are collected and published by the Commonwealth.

Claiming that the "privacy of citizens is of paramount importance" to the government, Brandis said the amendment, which will be introduced in the coming months during the spring sittings of Parliament, will criminalise the re-identification of de-identified data.

"There is a strict and standard government procedure to de-identify all government data that is published. Data that is released is anonymised so that the individuals who are the subject of that data cannot be identified," Brandis said on Wednesday.

"However, with advances of technology, methods that were sufficient to de-identify data in the past may become susceptible to re-identification in the future.

"The amendment to the Privacy Act will create a new criminal offence of re-identifying de-identified government data. It will also be an offence to counsel, procure, facilitate, or encourage anyone to do this, and to publish or communicate any re-identified dataset.

"The legislative change ... will provide that these offences will take effect from today's announcement."

Despite Brandis' professed commitment to Australian citizen privacy on Wednesday, the government has yet to amend the same piece of legislation in order to implement a mandatory data-breach notification scheme for its data-retention legislation.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, passed by the Australian government in March, came into effect last October, and will see customers' call records, location information, IP addresses, billing information, and other data stored for two years by telecommunications carriers, accessible without a warrant by law-enforcement agencies.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security recommended in February 2015 that Australia have data-breach notification laws in place before the end of 2015, prior to the implementation phase of the data-retention laws; however, it is only now slated to be heard during the 2016 spring sittings [PDF] of Parliament.

The attorney-general also said on Wednesday that open data, and the publication of collected datasets, is a vital part of today's government.

"The publication of major datasets is an important part of 21st century government, providing a great benefit to the community. It enables the government, policymakers, researchers, and other interested persons to take full advantage of the opportunities that new technology creates to improve research and policy outcomes," Brandis said.

"Our ability to deliver better policies and to solve many of the great challenges of our time rests on the effective sharing and analysis of data. For this reason, the Coalition government has promoted the benefits of open government data, in accordance with the Australian Government Public Data Policy Statement, and published anonymised data on data.gov.au."

As part of the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda, announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in December last year, the government committed to making all non-sensitive government data open by default.

Open government data, which involves publishing government-owned data in order to make it freely available and reusable by all, will enhance innovation among industry, improve transparency in government spending, and promote choice for citizens, the government said.

Under the Australian Government Public Data Policy Statement [PDF], government agencies and departments must also, where possible, create "free, easy-to-use, high-quality, and reliable" application programming interfaces (APIs), ensure data is kept up to date, and only charge for specialised data services.

Government entities are by default permitted to publish "appropriately anonymised" data that is in a machine-readable, spatially-enabled format, and licensed under a "Creative Commons By Attribution" licence.

"Australia's economic potential in the global economy will be strongly affected by the data revolution that will occur over the next five to 20 years," Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science Christopher Pyne said in December.

"We have to respond to this. Our government departments and organisations hold an extraordinary amount of unique data; data that has great potential for the creation of new and innovative products and business models by the private sector."

The Australian government's open data policy followed that of the New South Wales government, which made its data open by default in 2013. Its policy, released in November that year, stipulated that government agencies must "start from a position of data openness", except for when there is an "overriding reason" for data not to be released.

In July 2014, the NSW government then launched its revamped Open Data Dashboard to provide information to the public on recently added and updated datasets and case studies on how data has been employed during the development of apps.

Western Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory have also developed open government data policies and practices, with only the Northern Territory left to follow suit.

In June, the Coalition said that if re-elected, it would be offering local councils incentives to provide open data.

Under the federal government's AU$50 million Smart Cities Program, it is encouraging local councils to become more involved in planning, infrastructure, and service initiatives that demonstrate open data, partnerships, and the use of technology.

A report from the Australian Bureau of Communications Research (BCR), released in February, said open government data could generate up to AU$25 billion per year, contributing approximately 1.5 percent of Australia's GDP.

The BCR report drew on several studies made into the value of open government data, with a report by the McKinsey Global Institute finding that it has the potential to translate into AU$4 trillion per annum added to the global economy, with United States open data contributing AU$1.5 trillion, and the European Union contributing AU$1.2 trillion.

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