Elephant in the ballroom: ignoring privacy in the federal election

So far, privacy issues haven’t rated a mention in the campaign, despite widespread concerns over online surveillance and privacy worldwide. spanaut

In this election campaign the major parties are carefully dancing round an elephant in the ballroom. The elephant is big and a bit frightening. Its name is privacy policy.

Recent months have seen expressions of outrage or despair regarding pervasive global surveillance of telecommunications through government programs such as US National Security Agency’s PRISM program and private practice involving Google and its competitors.

People have also expressed concern regarding invasions of privacy by major media groups and disingenuous apologies for that behaviour. Overseas governments have encouraged each other to do better. The Australian government has passed the privacy tort hot potato to the Australian Law Reform Commission, and is ignoring the Finkelstein Report about media responsibility.

Privacy matters to people. And yet, judging by the latest policy statements, it does not matter very much to the big parties. There is an elephant in the ballroom but they’re going to ignore it and instead make noises about trust, borders and broadband.

State of play

The Australian Privacy Foundation – an unaligned and inclusive civil society body – contacted all the parties at the beginning of the current campaign and asked them about their privacy policies. From a research perspective that is an interesting exercise. It complements work by the foundation and by independent scholars regarding consumer and medical practitioner wariness about the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record.

The results of the contact are now online. The Australian Privacy Foundation has even provided a “rating” based on the responses. In the best tradition of research the rating is provocative, aimed at encouraging thought and action. It is useful because it should foster debate about what we want our representatives to do and about the extent to which they engage with voters on policy issues.

Should we expect parties to provide coherent and detailed statements – and respond to queries by civil society groups – rather than emphasising personalities and presidential-style photo ops?

Party policies

For privacy researchers and policymakers, the exercise of surveying political parties is important because it draws together information from across the spectrum. The Pirate Party, somewhat unsurprisingly, are keen on privacy. The WikiLeaks Party’s response is less clear, consistent with party founder Julian Assange’s disregard of privacy in his crusade for openness. The Liberal Party’s response was belated.

Overall, big party policy statements refer broadly to consumer rights and even human rights but have sidestepped the difficult questions about privacy. There is no commitment to stronger protection of privacy regarding health and business through, for example, better resourcing of the national Privacy Commissioner and meaningful penalties for privacy abuses.

Do the parties even recognise the concerns of many Australians? Judging by their statements, the answer is no. Is there an indication of what they’ll do in future, particularly how they’ll address tensions regarding law enforcement, the cloud, human rights, social network services, big data and so forth? No.

In the absence of a coherent philosophy we might infer that policy after September 7 will be determined by vested interests within the bureaucracy (especially the Australian Federal Police and ASIO) and business. It appears that privacy is an acceptable casualty in looking after the “free press”.

Why aren’t the big parties engaging with privacy?

One reason might be that privacy policy is a conundrum. It’s safer to ignore the elephant and keep on emphasising stronger borders, the war on crime and fixes such as CCTV and automated number plate recognition.

Australia is not going to stop cooperating with the US and other partners in systematic collection of information, so saying nothing means staying out of trouble. If you ignore the elephant it won’t step on your foot - at least until after the ball is over.

Another reason is that the big parties appear to be using loopholes in the Privacy Act in identifying and contacting potential voters. There are anecdotal reports that in some electorates people are being confused with documents from party representatives that appear to be electoral enrolment or voting forms. That practice is a betrayal of trust.

This should be investigated, stigmatised and strongly disowned by the parties. However, like the elephant, we ignore it. Turn up the music, look into Kevin or Tony’s eyes and dance the night away.