Privacy gains attention over the Christmas New Year break. Does a swallow or two make a Spring?

| January 3, 2008

We are in an interesting period of leadership change.  In Australia, we elected a new federal government at the end of 2007.  The UK has a new PM & the USA will have a new president by the end of 2008.

Is the privacy debate changing too, reflecting a new mood?

The year 2007 sensitised us to the challenges in a way that we have not seen for some years.  The capacity of organisations, public and private, to lose data appeared to have no bounds.  By some estimates, well over 100 million records about Americans were lost or stolen in 2007, mostly but not exclusively by the private sector.  The UK government lost information on nearly half its citizens in one go.  Japan has had a major loss.  The list goes on.  Quo Vadis Australia … ?  Then of course there were the debates over the retention of search engine query strings, advertising on social networking sites based on intimate personal information and the previous government's Access Card proposals.

The end of 2007 & start of 2008 appears to have taken off from this start point.

Here is some evidence from a totally unrepresentative sample of 3:

1.  "Faces of Business 2007: Peter Fleischer, Google privacy counsel", San Francisco Chronicle, 30 Dec 2007.  In only a dozen articles in the SF Chronicle series on ‘Faces of Business 2007’, 2 are directly privacy folk (see also the article on Joanne McNabb, California privacy chief) & another is Mark Zuckerberg  of Facebook who has had some 'privacy challenges'.

2.  "No proof airport security makes flying safer: study", Yahoo! News, Reuters & dozens of other places, 20 Dec 2007. 

3.  "Privacy laws open to question", Channel 7 Sunrise, 2 Jan 2008.  While this story suffers from serious errors of fact, out of date information and questionable judgment, it also asks important questions and most significantly, was considered of sufficient interest to make national television. 

On the lighter side, have a look at "Privacy: The Worst Quotes of the Year – Web Exclusives", CSO Magazine, as at 2 Jan 2008

This all feels a lot more like the debate as it stood before 11 September 2001.

The new Federal government is obviously contemplating change, as it indicated in its annoucement "New Laws On Freedom Of Information, Whistleblower Protection – Open Government After 11 Years", Australian Labor Party : Federal Labor policy Media Release, 26 Oct 2007.  It has also scrapped the Access Card, the previous government's controversial $1.1 billion Human Services card.

And of course, the Australian Law Reform Commission is due to report on its Review of Australian Privacy Law in March 2008.

This amounts to more than a couple of swallows, but it is far too early to see if a new Spring is around the corner where there is a fair allocation of control, risk and accountability in the handling of personal information about us all.

2008 is going to be an interesting year.

Malcolm Crompton is Managing Director of Information Integrity Solutions (IIS), a globally connected company that works with public sector and private sector organisations to help them build customer trust through respect for the customer and their personal information.