For sale: your privacy
by Mati English Two events that should disturb all Australians who value their civil rights and privacy surfaced last week. They involve private corporations being given access to the personal and private details of Australian residents to sell for a profit. Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd and US-based data-warehouse group Acxiom last week announced they had formed a joint venture to collect data on Australian citizens. And it has been revealed that the government agency in charge of collecting Medicare data, the Health Insurance Commission (HIC), intends to sell Medicare information to a range of customers, including insurance companies, lawyers, and any group or individual who describe themselves as a private health body or a consumer of health services. The Packer-Acxiom plan includes cross-referencing of information from a number of public sources — including electoral rolls — and selling it on to institutions such as banks, insurance companies and retailers. Personal and financial details of almost every Australian are likely to end up in this colossal databank. Furthermore, the Federal Government has postponed the introduction of privacy laws for the private sector until next year despite assurances only a month ago to the contrary. The revelations on HIC is contained in its just released 1998-99 Annual Report. According to this new strategic plan, prepared by consultants at a reported cost of $294,000, "Created information can be packaged as a product to be sold or provided as a service for customers". The HIC will organise its business "... around acquiring, packaging and distributing information that builds on our current systems to meet our customers' payment and health decision making needs". HIC customers include insurers, legal professionals and claimants, private health bodies, State health agencies, Commonwealth departments and agencies as well as all Australian residents. Said Stephen Milgate, Executive Director of the Australian Doctors' Fund: "The HIC is either a custodian of confidential information under strict privacy laws or it is a commercial organisation intent on selling its information to the highest bidder. It cannot be both and it is about time we knew the truth of where this organisation is heading."