by George Nott

More rights for individuals over their data, Productivity Commission recommends

Nov 03, 2016
Big DataGovernmentGovernment IT

Individuals should have better control over how their personal information is used and shared by government and private companies, the Productivity Commission has recommended.

In a draft report released today, the commission has proposed new rights to consumers to view what data organisations held on them, request edits, and demand a halt to data collection.

“While consumers arguably already have some access power, there are severe practical constraints in Australia at present, on how to exercise this. But this need not be the case,” the commission said.

Consumers should also be able to direct companies and government bodies to safely transfer their data to private sector organisations, for example to obtain an insurance quote from a competitor. Any charges companies imposed charges on customers to do this would be monitored by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The commission also recommended that consumers be given a right to be informed of disclosure of data by a data holder to third parties; and a right to appeal automated decisions, such as those based on statistical profiling.

A greater say

“Australian consumers have little capacity to choose how personal data about them is used; and too often, organisations and governments make decisions about the use of individuals’ data on behalf of the individuals concerned. In the face of the ubiquity of data collected, the scope to provide consumers with a greater say – within limits – on the handling of data that is sourced from them, is considerable,” the Productivity Commission said.

In the private sector, opting out of data collection could mean products or services would no longer be available to an individual: “But consumers must, in the ever-expanding world of data opportunities, be able to make that call for themselves”.

However, opting out would not be possible “if the collected information is necessary for public benefit purposes”, such as the maintenance of public health and safety, or administrative purposes such as tax collection.

The ‘Comprehensive Right’ of consumers over their data would apply to “all businesses, government agencies and government business enterprises” the commission said.

Falling behind

When it came to legal and policy frameworks around public and private sector held consumer data Australia was “ad hoc and not contemporary” the report said, and the fact data held on individuals was increasingly digital is not going to diminish.

“It is a global movement and, to its detriment, Australia is not participating. Tweaking existing structures and legislation will not suffice. Rather, fundamental and systematic changes are needed to the way Australian governments, business and individuals handle data.”

The report pointed to how, in the UK, administrative hospital records are linked to cancer screening registries had improved diagnosis outcomes. It also highlighted the New Zealand Treasury’s use of anonymised mental health program usage and pharmaceutical datasets to identify young people who are at risk of poor outcomes in adulthood.

However, the management of Australia’s high value public interest datasets, such as health data, would require a “robust framework, including expert technical support”, the report said, pointing to the “re-identification problems” that arose from the release of data from the Department of Health.

This robust framework would require a new Data Sharing and Release Act, the report said.

National Data Custodian

The report also recommended the establishment of a National Data Custodian to oversee data access and use. The role would be responsible for the operation of a national data system, designate datasets of national interest and accredit release authorities and trusted users.

Accredited Release Authorities should be formed, the report said, to decide on which datasets be made publically available and prepare them for release. These would largely be existing agencies but with additional funding to fulfil the role.

“Reforming public sector data access is a strong first step, and Australia’s governments need to make significant changes if open government agendas are to catch up with those in competing economies,” the report concluded.

The Productivity Commission is accepting written submissions on the draft report until December 12. The final report is expected to be handed to go before government in March next year.