The Australian Privacy Foundation was founded on 28 July 1987 as the vehicle for the defeat of the Australia Card national identity system. A companion document explains how the Foundation mobilised the wave of opposition that quickly saw the defeat of the ID card proposal.
After that success, it was clear that an ongoing national voice for privacy protection was needed in Australia. During the late 1980s, the Foundation’s focus was to ensure that the Tax File Number (TFN) scheme was not an ID Card in disguise, and to lobby in favour of the long-overdue enactment of national privacy legislation. The first Summit organised by the Foundation brought Australian Taxation Office officials, politicians and privacy advocates together to examine the TFN proposals, and exposed many weaknesses in the proposals which the Government was subsequently forced to rectify.
The Foundation also made significant contributions to the political debate which resulted in a greatly strengthened Privacy Act coming into force in 1988. The Foundation then turned its attention for the first time to the private sector, and commenced a highly successful campaign against the credit industry’s proposals to introduce positive reporting, a system whereby the payment performance of every consumer creditor in Australia would be reported on a monthly basis and this information would be made available to any credit provider. At the Foundation’s second Summit, the responsible Commonwealth Minister announced that the Government would legislate to ban positive reporting, and to impose comprehensive national credit reporting laws. Later in 1989 the Foundation fought a successful media and parliamentary campaign to counter the credit industry’s attacks on the proposed legislation.
During this period, the APF also enjoyed success in fighting the signing of the international Tax Assistance treaty, involving the transfer of vast amounts of information on Australian taxpayers to overseas databases.
In the early 1990s, the Privacy Foundation’s focus shifted to several new technology issues. In 1991 the Foundation was involved a campaign which successfully scuttled plans to introduce a computer “black box” system linking every Australian pharmacy. In 1992 and 1995 the APF was involved in campaigns against national smart card proposals for health care records and plans for the introduction of new technologies in the telecommunications industry. The Foundation opposed the development of the Law Enforcement Access Network, which was finally abandoned in early 1994. As telecommunications companies prepared to introduce caller ID services, the Foundation worked to see that privacy issues were not forgotten. A campaign which focused on the privacy risks of proposals for medical smart cards prompted the Government to drop these plans.
In the mid-1990s, the Foundation launched a new initiative to develop a simple statement of the basic privacy rights of individuals. The Australian Privacy Charter Council was established, chaired initially by Justice Michael Kirby and on his elevation to the High Court by Janine Haines. It consisted of individuals from information technology, telecommunications, health care and the credit industry, as well as lawyers, academics, privacy advocates and community leaders. The Charter was launched in December 1994, and since then has been recognised around the world as a significant advance in protecting privacy rights. The Privacy Charter Council operated independently of the Foundation until 2002, and made many submissions, particularly to reviews conducted by Parliamentary Committees.
Also in the mid-1990s, the Foundation also played a major role in highlighting the privacy risks in the widespread use of video surveillance. As surveillance cameras became common in workplaces and in public areas such as malls and busy streets, the Foundation argued that people had a right to be legally protected from the abuse of their personal information. The NSW Government implemented legislation to protect employees from improper use of video surveillance in the workplace.
In the late 1990s, the Privacy Foundation played a key role in an ongoing campaign for a consistent and fair national privacy scheme to apply to businesses. After the Federal Government’s backflip on its promise to introduce “world best” privacy legislation to cover business, the Foundation ran a strong campaign to highlight the dangers for consumers, business, Australia’s global reputation and emerging information industries from the lack of privacy safeguards.
The Foundation also participated in the development during 1997 and 1998 of the Privacy Commissioner’s National Principles for the Fair Handling of Personal Data, which were intrinsic to the private sector provisions inserted into the Federal Privacy Act in 2000. The Foundation used the opportunity to highlight the utter inadequacy of self-regulatory arrangements, through a Campaign for Fair Privacy Laws. The Privacy Charter’s influence was seen in the inclusion in the National Principles of a right to anonymity.
The Foundation’s campaigning on the outsourcing of government information technology prompted a government commitment to extend privacy legislation to cover personal information which is processed by private sector organisations.
Also during the late 1990s, the Foundation was involved in the development of privacy codes for the telecommunications industry, including long, drawn-out negotiations with Telstra over the caller ID (calling number display) technology which makes it possible for an organisation to identify a caller and match them to database records before a call is even answered, putting the privacy of phone users at risk. The Foundation also contributed to the challenge to the Australian Direct Marketing Authority’s proposed Code of Conduct, which underwent substantial changes after a hearing conducted by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (but which remains a document entirely unacceptable to consumers and the Foundation).
During the first decade of the 2000s, the Privacy Foundation has represented the public interest across a wide range of issues including the privacy of people’s health records, email, internet usage, spending habits and communications. We are working to see Australian governments implement the kind of privacy safeguards which an overwhelming majority of their citizens expect – privacy laws which provide a fair balance between an individual’s right to control their personal information, and the interests of other individuals, society as a whole, governments and business. We work with other organisations wherever we can in order to achieve the best outcomes for Australians and the recognition of one of the defining human rights issues of the information age.