ALRC’s view

A longitudinal study of attitudes to privacy

67.92 The Privacy Act is based largely on the recommendations of a previous ALRC inquiry into privacy conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The current Inquiry is being conducted in a very different world where: technology has greatly changed the way in which we hold and exchange information; governments have contracted out a wide range of services; and the threat of terrorism has placed security concerns high on the public agenda. There is limited Australian research upon which to draw in order to determine whether expectations of privacy have changed since the ALRC’s previous inquiry.

67.93 The privacy concerns of children and young people, however, do appear to differ from those of older Australians. For example, in general young people appear more prepared than older people to accept government interference with privacy rights in the name of the public good. In addition, young people appear to have different views to older people about the regulation of privacy in the online environment. They appear to be more aware than older people of the difficulties associated with the regulation of activities on the internet, perhaps because of their familiarity with the online environment. Young people have suggested that promoting individual control of personal information in the online environment is more appropriate than attempting to impose technical legal rules on internet users.

67.94 These differences in the views of young people and adults about privacy are not so great as to warrant a reconsideration of the basic framework of the Privacy Act. In the ALRC’s view, the existing framework of the Privacy Act, reformed in accordance with the recommendations in this Report, reflects adequately the privacy expectations of children and young people in Australia. Many of the recommended changes to the privacy framework in Australia are aimed at improving the clarity, consistency and enforcement of privacy laws. These changes will be of benefit to all Australians, and are also consistent with the expectations of young Australians.

67.95 To date, the surveys commissioned by the OPC have provided useful information on community attitudes to privacy. They are not a substitute, however, for a proper longitudinal study encompassing both quantitative and qualitative research on privacy. Qualitative research, while more difficult to conduct and analyse, is more likely to explain experiences and beliefs in terms of the wider contexts of peoples’ lives. A longitudinal study will help to determine whether the attitudes of Generation Y today will persist over time or whether they are attributable to youth more generally, and whether generations that follow will have different attitudes to privacy.

67.96 The ALRC recommends, therefore, that the Australian Government fund a longitudinal study of the attitudes of Australians to privacy. The study should be representative of the Australian population, and should include participants under the age of 18.

67.97 Given that the outcomes of the research will be directly relevant to national policy development, funding for the project should be provided by the Australian Government. Although noting the OPC’s disagreement on this point, the ALRC does not consider that the OPC is the appropriate body to conduct or direct a longitudinal study. Given the OPC’s experience with surveys about attitudes to privacy, it would be useful and appropriate for it to have input into the planning and design of the study.

67.98 A number of existing Australian Government research bodies, in particular the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, have the capacity and experience to undertake longitudinal studies of this kind, although their functions do not usually extend to information and statistics on privacy. Funding could be made available to appropriate academic researchers through the Australian Research Council. Alternatively, the Government may fund an appropriate researcher or research body directly to undertake this project.

Recommendation 67-1 The Australian Government should fund a longitudinal study of the attitudes of Australians, in particular young Australians, to privacy.

Online social networking

67.99 As noted above, there are concerns about the way in which young people use social networking websites. Consistent with its approach to online regulation generally,[101] the ALRC is not making a recommendation to regulate such websites. The ALRC, however, does make recommendations in Chapter 68 to ensure that decisions under the Privacy Act regarding the personal information of children and young people under the age of 15 are made by people with parental responsibility for the child or young person.

67.100 The ALRC notes that many social networking websites are setting age limits on membership. Further, online social network providers are encouraging parental monitoring and reporting of under-age use of their websites. The Good Practice Guidance for the Providers of Social Networking and Other User Interactive Services,[102] which was developed with input from major social networking websites, is a useful global initiative that may have an impact of the way in which this industry develops. While initiatives like these are to be encouraged, they are unlikely to stop curious children and young people from avoiding simple age verification mechanisms online and continuing to make bad privacy choices when interacting via the internet.

67.101 The ALRC considers that the most effective measure that can be taken at present is to educate children, young people, teachers and parents about social networking websites. Education in this area should highlight the privacy dangers associated with the disclosure of personal information on social networking websites and should provide advice on how to use these websites safely and appropriately.

Privacy education for children and young people

67.102 Children and young people need to be informed and educated about privacy issues so that they are better equipped to protect their own privacy and respect the privacy of others. Education programs should focus on privacy issues that arise in the online environment, and in interactions with government, organisations and other individuals. Education initiatives aimed at young people can improve the behaviour of adults in the next 10–15 years, and also may educate parents through a ‘trickle up effect’.[103] The recommendations below are intended to equip young people with the necessary information and analytical skills to make appropriate decisions about withholding or disclosing personal information in different circumstances.

67.103 The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission provides a range of resources on its website for students. Resources are also available to assist teachers to incorporate human rights issues and case studies into lesson plans.[104] The OPC presently has a range of web pages and information sheets that provide guidance to individuals on the operation of the Privacy Act. This material is not, however, aimed specifically at children and young people.

67.104 The ALRC recommends that the OPC develop and publish education material aimed specifically at a younger audience, and geared towards school curriculums. This will make the information in the materials more accessible to children and young people. The incorporation of OPC materials into student lessons also may help to raise the profile of the OPC among young people, better enabling them to obtain access to further information about privacy and to utilise the complaint-handling processes available to them.

67.105 There also is a need for educational material dealing specifically with privacy issues associated with online social networking. The NetAlert brand, which is now administered by ACMA, is already used extensively in the school and home environment, and it would be a good vehicle for ensuring that children and young people are introduced to the relevant safety and privacy issues in social networking environments. The ALRC recommends that the OPC and ACMA work together to update existing educational material, or create new material, about privacy issues in online social networking for a range of age groups.

67.106 While the development of educational material, and any accompanying educational campaigns run by the OPC and ACMA, will improve greatly the quality of information available about privacy issues, the ALRC still considers that there is a need to bring these issues to the attention of children and young people in a more systematic way. The ALRC recommends, therefore, that education about privacy rights, the protection of personal information, and respect for the privacy of others, be incorporated into school curriculums. Privacy issues should be discussed in lessons about computers and online safety, some commerce and legal studies lessons, and generally in education about civics and citizenship. Teachers should be able to draw on educational materials recommended in this chapter, as well as existing material available online. An introduction to these issues within the school environment will help to equip young people with the necessary skills to identify and manage privacy and safety issues.

Recommendation 67-2 The Office of the Privacy Commissioner should develop and publish educational material about privacy issues aimed at children and young people.

Recommendation 67-3 The Office of the Privacy Commissioner, in consultation with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, should ensure that specific guidance on the privacy aspects of using social networking websites is developed and incorporated into publicly available educational material.

Recommendation 67-4 In order to promote awareness of personal privacy and respect for the privacy of others, state and territory education departments should incorporate education about privacy, including privacy in the online environment, into school curriculums.

[101] See Ch 11.

[102] United Kingdom Home Office Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet, Good Practice Guidelines for the Providers of Social Networking and Other User Interactive Services (2008).

[103] Workshop Summary, ‘Workshop: Children’s Privacy Education’ (Paper presented at Terra Incognita: Privacy Horizons—29th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, Ottawa, 28 September 2007).

[104] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Education <
index.html> at 22 May 2008.