Published on 9 December 1983. Last modified on 28 July 2010.

The ALRC received a wide-ranging reference on privacy from the federal Attorney-General in April 1976. At the same time, public controversy arose in relation to certain aspects of the census to be held on 30 June 1976, therefore, the Attorney-General requested that the implications of the census for individual privacy be taken into account in the Commission's general reference.

The ALRC released a discussion paper Privacy and the Census (ALRC DP 8) in 1978 and its first report, Privacy and the Census (ALRC Report 12), was tabled in federal Parliament in November 1979.

ALRC Report 12 reported that the aim of the census was to produce valid statistical information for use by governments, by industry and by voluntary organisations in planning and in making decisions that affect the welfare of all Australians. The report concluded that there were enormous benefits to be gained from the information in the census, however the report recognised that public concerns were valid as existing law only provided haphazard protection for personal information.

At the same time, work was continuing on the main privacy reference, with the release of two discussion papers Privacy and Publication - Proposals for Protection (ALRC DP 2) in 1977 and Privacy and Intrusions (ALRC DP 13) in 1980. The second report Privacy (ALRC Report 22) was tabled in December 1983.

ALRC Report 22 outlined that privacy was in danger actually and, even more so, prospectively. The report described the chief sources of danger in terms of growing official powers, new business practices and new information technology.

Key recommendations

ALRC Report 12

  • The public should be informed both about the need for census information and about the measures taken to protect confidentiality.
  • Census information should not be destroyed but should be transferred to security in the national Archives.
  • Access to census information should be forbidden for most purposes for 75 years.
  • Highly sensitive information should not be sought on a compulsory basis unless there was a highly compelling need.

ALRC Report 22

  • A Privacy Act should be passed to establish information privacy principles.

  • The Act should provide for the appointment of a Privacy Commissioner.

Implementation

ALRC Report 12

On 20 November 1979, the Treasurer announced the Government's response to certain recommendations during preparation for the 1981 census. The Treasurer indicated that the recommendation for precise questions to be set out in the regulations would not be implemented in time for the 1981 census.

Amendments were made to the existing legislation by the Census and Statistics Amendment Act (No 2) 1981 (Cth), which implemented some ALRC recommendations including clarifying the power of the Australian Bureau of Statistics to ensure compliance with the Census process and providing for the Minister's power to release information, in a manner that would not personally identify an individual. However, generally, all census forms continued to be destroyed after collation of statistics because of privacy concerns by some members of the public.

For the 2001 Census people were given a choice of having their names, addresses and census information retained confidentially by the National Archives of Australia and released for research purposes after 99 years. Details were retained only for those householders who explicitly 'opted in'. The success of this option will be assessed to determine how future Census forms will be handled.

ALRC Report 22

The Commonwealth enacted the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth), which created the position of a Privacy Commissioner and implemented many of the recommendations relating to information privacy.

The functions of the Privacy Commissioner include that of receiving and investigating complaints under the Act. A Privacy Advisory Committee was also established to advise the Commissioner and to carry out a range of other functions including community education about privacy.

While ALRC Report 22 considered regulation of information in both the public and private sectors, the original Privacy Act dealt with only personal information held by Commonwealth departments and authorities and tax file number information held by both private and government individuals or organisations. It established 11 Information Privacy Principles to govern the use of and access to personal information by Commonwealth departments and authorities.

The Privacy Amendment Act 1990 (Cth) amended the Privacy Act to provide protection for individuals' personal credit information. It did so by limiting the purposes for and organisations to which a credit reporting agency can disclose this information and by providing guidelines in the form of a Code of Conduct as to how this information should be dealt with. It also provided individuals with a right to access this information and to apply to have errors in that information corrected.

The Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Act 1987 (Cth) adopted many of the Commission's recommendations on telephone tapping.

The Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Act 2000 (Cth), which came into effect in December 2001, made further amendments to the Privacy Act 1988. The amendments set out the National Privacy Principles for the fair handling of personal information in the private sector and provide a basis for business and industry to develop practices to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and that the personal information they hold is accurate and secure.

Continuing issues

Increased electronic storage of information, technological advances and the increased use of the Internet will continue to place issues of privacy on the legal and political agenda.

The ALRC reconsidered issues relating to privacy in relation to its reports on freedom of information legislation (ALRC Report 77, Open Government: A Review of the Federal Freedom of Information Act 1982) in 1995 and on the Archives Act (ALRC 85, Australia's Federal Record: A Review of Archives Act 1983) in 1998.

The Australian Law Reform Commission, in conjunction with the Australian Health Ethics Committee, considered issues relating to privacy as part of its inquiry into the use of human genetic information. See Essentially Yours: The Protection of Human Genetic Information in Australia  (ALRC Report 96).

The ALRC conducted a complete review of Australian privacy laws, with a final report published in 2008.