Defuse census outrage with independent oversight of data-handling

Australia needs a transparent, independent data-broking agency

The ongoing argument over the 2016 Australian Census highlights a broader problem, argues opposition MP Tim Watts: the lack of any kind of national information policy.

In this post at Medium, Watts notes that the information reform agenda was announced by the party during 2015, and would comprise a systematic scan of “institutions, policies and regulations to optimise the generation, protection, access and use of information in Australia”.

The Register agrees, but there's something missing: a body to oversee information policy after the review is completed. Vulture South would like to suggest that the Australian government create, fund, and empower a body we'll call the Australian Data Broker.

Its purpose would be to formalise – and independently enforce – what are, all too often, ad-hoc arrangements subjected to little scrutiny. Even the Information Commissioner's Guidelines on Data Matching in Australian Government Administration are optional.

So what characteristics do we suggest the “Australian Data Broker” should have?

First, like bodies such as the Human Rights Commission or the Privacy Commissioner, it needs to exist at arm's length from government. People need to be able to trust that its decisions and announcements are independent of political considerations; perhaps it could be put under the Office of The Australian Information Commissioner.

However it's constituted, the Australian Data Broker would have a technical role, and an administrative role.

Let's start with the administrative role, because that helps describe the technical role we have in mind. As an administrative body, the Australian Data Broker would be briefed to:

  • 1. Act as a clearing-house for potentially privacy-invasive uses of government-held data;
  • 2. To assess whether the request is justified on public policy grounds;
  • 3. To grant or deny requests; and
  • 4. To publish reasons for its grant/deny decisions.

Number 4 is important: either way, the broker's decisions would be public, and they would be open to challenge (for example through the Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal or a similar body).

The other role would be technical: to protect privacy, the data broker would be the “clean room”. Having given permission for an extra-agency use of sensitive data, the broker would provide the technical infrastructure for sanitising and delivering the data.

What Australians would get – immediately – is far greater transparency than they now have in the use of their data. This stretches far beyond the current stoush over the Census – it would also mean that if a bureau wants to tick off tax records against some obscure entitlement or other, they can't do so in secret. Or at least without legislation, which the Australian Taxation Office needed to run its data-matching program.

And if there's a genuine reason (which may not only be privacy) to oppose a proposal, the opportunity exists to do so.

But won't someone think of the hackfests?

Good question.

One answer is that the regime we've discussed here would only cover personal data. If you want to stage a government data hackathon with any of the stuff you cn already find on data.gov.au, go ahead.

It's the untrammelled use of personal data – the census, tax data, health data, and welfare data – that needs regulation and transparency. ®

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