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Issue #1436      18 November 2009

Big brother awards

The Australian Privacy Foundation has held Big Brother award ceremonies every year since 2003. Affiliates of Privacy International have been hosting them in 16 countries since 1998.

The competition gets tougher by the year but the winner of the major Big Brother Award for 2009 goes to the Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system employed by various Australian police forces in conjunction with CrimTrac. The Most Invasive Technology award was given to the centralised database of real-time vehicle location throughout Australia which can be linked to other data, including digital images of drivers and related personal data.

“ANPR uses a camera and optical character recognition technology software to capture an image of a vehicle, locate the number plate within the image and then convert the number plate value to a text string,” the Privacy Impact Assessment Consultation Paper noted about the spooking technology.

CrimTrac has been developing a project to store the vast amount of data arising from ANPR projects in individual jurisdictions in a central database. It will be available for retrospective analysis for a wide variety of purposes. The Privacy Impact Assessment Consultation Paper (p12) states “CrimTrac has made some basic assumptions including that:

  • Data-matching to identify alerts would take place centrally
  • Sightings would be collected for all vehicles passing a camera site, and would contain an overhead image of the vehicle at sufficient resolution so that the driver or passenger could be identified if appropriate
  • The system could grow from its current size which is about 300 fixed cameras and 100 mobile cameras to 4,000 fixed cameras and 500 mobile cameras.”

Most Australian police forces have implemented ANPR, at least in pilot form, but in some cases as full implementations. Complaints about the system include:

  • All projects result in the indiscriminate capture of vast amounts of personal data (not just that related to criminal suspects), almost all of it without any justification
  • None of the projects has been required to demonstrate clear evidence of benefits
  • None of the projects has been subject to a comprehensive Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • None of the individual projects has involved privacy or civil liberties organisations
  • CrimTrac has conducted a privacy impact assessment (PIA), but has suppressed the PIA Report, despite undertaking to publish it
  • In only one jurisdiction has a project been subject to any form of Parliamentary oversight.

Google’s Street View was runner up for the Most Invasive Technology award for systematically gathering and publishing detailed electronic images of streets and everything on them (including private property) without permission.

The winner of the Worst Corporate Invader for 2009 is the Biometrics Institute for misleading and deceptive conduct in relation to its Privacy Code. The Institute “owns” one of the few Codes of Practice registered under Part IIIAA of the Privacy Act 1988.

Registered Codes have the effect of substituting for the “default” National Privacy Principles (NPPs). For organisations that are bound by a Code, their compliance is assessed against the Code provisions rather than the NPPs. To approve a Code, the Privacy Commissioner must be satisfied that it incorporates all of the NPPs or sets out obligations that, overall, are at least the equivalent of the NPPs. The Privacy Commissioner approved and registered the Biometrics Industry Privacy Code in September 2006. The Code includes all of the NPPs but also has some additional principles, which were welcomed at the time as potentially significant additional privacy protections.

As of October 9, 2009, the Biometrics Institute website shows the Code as having five “subscribers” all of which are “service provider” members of the Institute. The Institute claims to have more than 100 members – including many large government and private sector users, and many suppliers, of biometric technologies. According to research by the Australian Privacy Foundation, none of these members have ever subscribed to the Institute’s privacy code in the three years of its existence.

While subscribing to the Code would have no legal effect for government agencies, which are typically subject to different privacy principles, and never to the NPPs, there is no reason why a government agency could not voluntarily agree to follow the Code provisions, and the Institute website encourages this, as well as suggesting that agencies could give preference to suppliers who are Code subscribers.

Telstra was runner up for the Worst Corporate Invader award for charging home phone line users a monthly fee to keep an unlisted number.

A special “People’s Choice” award was given to the NSW government for its proposal for automatic electoral enrolment based on the use of personal information collected for other unrelated purposes.

Acknowledgements – Australian Privacy Foundation

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