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Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, dubbed the "last man standing", resigned his dual role on 24 March 2018 (Image screenshot YouTube)

Never before has there been a more pressing need for a strong voice acting on our behalf on matters relating to our privacy.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is charged that responsibility, yet few people are aware of what the Coalition Government was doing to the OAIC at a time when significant plans were afoot involving the re-use our administrative data.

The IA article, 'The Data Sharing and Release Act is coming for your data', details repeated attempts by successive governments to de-anonymise the census — an effort that finally bore fruit in 2016, giving rise to the #CensusFail campaign.

These efforts are set against recurring grassroots campaigns which, until the last, were successful in preventing the Census from being changed from a collection of anonymous statistics to being used for purposes beyond those authorised by the Census and Statistics Act 1905.

The article revealed that plans are well advanced to link together our personal information provided with the last Census, to create what has been described as a cradle-to-grave "movie" of our lives for the benefit of industry and researchers.

Just months after the Abbott Government came to power, it presided over what was described by Opposition immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, as 

"... one of the most significant privacy breaches in Australia's history ... ineptitude of the greatest degree."

It allowed the publication of personal information about refugees seeking asylum from the Australian Government. It took a full nine months for the OAIC to report on the breach — a delay which reflects the extraordinary turmoil which befell the office during this time.

Caught within the cogs of the radical machinery of government changes handed down in the 2014 Budget, the OAIC – which houses both the Privacy Commissioner and the Information Commissioner – was slated for abolition. By mid-2015, the original Information Commissioner had resigned after the Canberra office was closed — leaving Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, not only to do the job of both the information and privacy commissioners but to do so while working from home

Not long after Malcolm Turnbull came to power late in 2015, he put into action efforts to "streamline" the legislative environment that prevents agencies from sharing data between portfolios. While the Coalition plans to abolish the independent office of the Privacy Commissioner never passed the Senate, the OAIC was left in limbo, while momentous decisions over our right to control what can be done with our data were made and implemented.

Over the past couple of years, the Australian public has been treated to one alarming breach of privacy after another:

2014

2015

  • The decision to make telcos and internet service providers retain our phone and internet metadata for access by government agencies without a warrant.

2016

  • The decision to de-anonymise the census to create data integration projects.
  • The "accidental' publication of improperly de-identified Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme records belonging to one in ten Australians as open data.
  • Multiple health data breaches including Red Cross patient records.
  • The "hacking" of the ABS census website.

2017

2018

While under sustained fire, the OAIC introduced the Australian Privacy Principles in 2014 (which seem to be ignored by the the Turnbull Government in its attempts to own our data) and the Mandatory Data Breach legislation — enforcing that Australians be notified when data about us held by organisations with a turnover in excess of $3 million, is breached.

After a concerted campaign by Australia's open government community, who nearly mutinied the Open Government National Action Plan consultation (below) in the lead up to the 2015  May Budget. Some funding was restored to the OAIC the following December and only after that were the history-making changes to the last census were put in motion.

There was only one catch: the funding was not to continue business as usual but to oversee the privacy aspects of what was to become that other ethical dumpster fire of the decade, the "robo-debt" fiasco, or as the Government likes to call it, 'Enhanced Welfare Payment Integrity — non‑employment income data matching'.

Not only was Timothy Pilgrim, once described as the "last man standing", waging a battle to retain statutory independence of both the information and privacy commissioner roles, the office was then asked to sign off on one of the most egregious abuses of power ever taken by an Australian government against their most vulnerable people, in order to maintain funding.

Beginning with the Abbott Government and culminating with Turnbull's plans for transformation, the very agency meant to function as an ethical circuit breaker between the government and citizens had been brought to its knees and forced to betray the very people it is there to protect.

Continuing this downward spiral, Pilgrim recently resigned from his role as the Australian Privacy Commissioner leaving both roles to Angelene Falk, who is the current Acting Australian Information Commissioner and Acting Privacy Commissioner.

Rosie Williams is a citizen journalist who runs privacy workshops at rosiewilliams.com.au. You can follow Rosie on Twitter @Info_Aus.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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