Data | Digital economy

Australians acting in a contradictory manner with data privacy

There is a paradox in the way Australians are giving out their data; more than 70 per cent hand over personal data on social media, that same percentage are also in loyalty programs, but at least 50 per cent seek to mislead those same sites by modifying their information, Productivity Commission Chairman Peter Harris AO has told a CEDA audience in Melbourne.

The Productivity Commission is in the final week of its inquiry into Data Availability and Use, and Mr Harris spoke to the audience about some of the interesting and contradictory trends the commission has found to date.

He said the motivation for the commission was to improve how public sector data was used, “knowing as we did already quite a lot about its failings.”

However, he said that once the commission started work, it discovered an “even larger unaddressed need in Australian public policy: consumer access to data that they create is incredibly poor.”

“I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t really considered that imbalance of incentives – consumers give and give, but share so little in the opportunities – until this Inquiry,” Mr Harris said.

“In reports throughout the 2000s, the Productivity Commission lamented the restrictions on access to data that the public sector held, but which was off limits to researchers and analysts – those outside the organisation and as often as not from inside as well.

“Even when we could find a data source to unlock a policy conundrum, those sources that could answer vital questions often had not been linked.  At times, this was due to indifference.  At times, privacy rules were asserted.  And at times, laws prevented it.

“Where we could, we became quite skilled at doing that linkage ourselves, or had others to help. But then we had to destroy the information generated, in support of confidentiality or privacy requirements. This is a rule, set by Commonwealth Government policy.

“It is akin to burning books.”

He went on to say that the public sector has been poorly served by regulation when it comes to data analytics, which will be a finding of the report.

However, he described “the more interesting development” discovered through the inquiry was in relation to the consumer space. 

“Our own consideration and that of notable thinkers on the social shifts that became the means to some very popular social ends – Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat; or Uber, Airbnb, Amazon – suggested that the willingness to continue to supply the data at the base of all these services depended on one factor above others – trust,” he said.

“But there is a paradox here, evident in consumer responses to surveys: consumers, who so willingly supply the data for all these analytical purposes, are nevertheless concerned at some data practices and uncertain of their effect.

“More than 70 per cent of us hand over our personal data on social media. More than 80 cent of us are in a supermarket or airline loyalty program. But at least 50 per cent of us seek to mislead those same sites by messing with our information.  We sort of trust them, and yet we don’t.”

He said that this paradox creates a risk for both data holders in the public sector and private sector data holders alike. 

“There must be a tipping point, where the balance of willingness tips way from data supply towards data restriction,” he said.

Mr Harris also highlighted what he called the “complete absence of rights” for individuals when it comes to individuals obtaining their own data from organisations, aside from the legal rights of privacy.

“Firms may have copyright and certainly have contract in order to control access to their data. Increasingly, they will have trade-secret style technology and algorithms,” he said.

“Consumers have only privacy.

“As a consumer, you do not own your data.  Some firms tell you they do, but if you ask to sell it and deprive them of it (as you might an asset that you owned) you rapidly will discover that this is a novel form of ownership.”

Watch Mr Harrison’s full presentation below.