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Inquiry into data use asks the wrong questions



In the wake of #CensusFail and the Senate inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 Census, it is worth noting another inquiry is underway: the Productivity Commission was charged in March to inquire into 'data availability and use'.

MetadataIt will investigate the 'costs and benefits of making more datasets available; examine options for data collection, sharing and release; identify how consumers can benefit from access to data; and consider how to preserve individual privacy and control over data use'.

It holds important implications for Australians because our personal information is collected and stored by business and government in nearly all our daily interactions.

The terms of reference do however make a number of assumptions, making it look very much as though it will find that the benefits of making data available outweigh the costs. And those costs are likely to be our privacy.

The first assumption is that data is a valuable product. Certainly, data is now a commodity. But framing the inquiry around the costs and benefits of making more data available assumes that data is necessarily good, and it is economically important as a product on the open market.

The second assumption is that data should move freely. In other words, where one agency or firm holds data, that data should be available to other agencies and firms, who can draw on this information to offer better products or services for consumers.

The flipside is that there is a cost associated with constraining data, and not sharing it freely. The argument seems to be that consumers will get inferior and perhaps more expensive products and services if agencies and firms do not have sufficient access to data to inform their operations.

The third premise underpinning the terms of reference is that all data are equal. The inquiry focuses not only on private sector data (such as spending habits, or what people search for on the internet), but also on government data about citizens (income, health, education data, for example).


"My caution arises from the fundamental importance of privacy to a civil society. In this inquiry however, privacy concerns seem an afterthought following the premise of data as a product."


The inquiry is therefore to analyse the commodification of the data that we leave behind as consumers (sometimes called 'metadata') as well as the information we are required to give over to government. The idea of commodification of data effectively involves us as consumers and as citizens becoming a product.

It is true that data — particularly so-called 'big data' — hold many benefits for the public. Public health, for example, is reliant on large datasets to gain insights into disease and its cause. There is a strong argument also for evidence-based government decisions and that evidence can be found through analysing huge amounts of data.

Like many academics, I appreciate what it is like to feel hungry for more data ... data that will answer exactly the problem I am trying to solve. However, I am cautious about the boundaries that we impose upon data collection, storage, and sharing. My caution arises from the fundamental importance of privacy to a civil society. In this inquiry however, privacy concerns seem an afterthought following the premise of data as a product.

Apart from the subtext of facilitating data commodification in this inquiry, it is worth remembering the broader data context in Australia. Last year Australia legislated to impose onerous obligations on organisations to retain telecommunications data. Further, the Census has been accused of 'function creep' through plans to link its data with data from other government agencies and also to link an individual's data from one Census into the future to gain a lifelong picture. Function creep occurs where data is collected for one purpose, but is ultimately applied towards additional purposes not originally envisaged. In other words, the stage is set for government to continue incursions into 'consumers'' data.

It is interesting to note that before even the release of the inquiry's draft report, Attorney-General George Brandis has made a pronouncement that re-identifying de-identified data will become a criminal offence. In other words, it will become a criminal offence to reverse-engineer data that has already been de-identified, to identify a person. If people were to have privacy concerns about expanding access to data, then this pronouncement appears to have already answered those concerns. Although the real picture is far more complex, it almost looks as though the pronouncement may have pre-empted aspects of the Productivity Commission inquiry.

Our complex and interconnected world does indeed function on data. To gain the benefits data has to offer, there is a trade-off: a new kind of social contract. In exchange for giving up some of our privacy, we might have easy access to highly valuable goods and services. The Productivity Commission inquiry is important, highlighting just what benefits this exchange might bring.

But we must also be clear about the costs — not costs to enterprise or government, and not only the economic costs to us as 'consumers'. We need to know the cost in terms of our privacy. And criminal sanctions, especially announced without this broader contextual understanding, are unlikely to be our salvation.


Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, metadata



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Existing comments

When Kate says "My caution arises from the fundamental importance of privacy to a civil society" she paints with a broad brush. There are folks out there - child molesters, people planning to hurt other people - who crave privacy to do what they do. Do we want them to enjoy it? Not likely. Governments need to walk a fine line when legislating in this area. Personally, I'd prefer to see them erring on the side of caution, even if that means sacrificing some of my privacy.

David Healy | 07 October 2016  

All data contains errors. All data incurs a cost of verifying its accuracy, just like a factory had to have qc procedures. Who pays those costs of the data qc checks? Mostly the organisationd that collect data, shrug this. They shift to us, the time and ecpense of proof-reading their databases for them. We pay those costs evety time we check a receipt...or phone charge.....follow up an inquiry....phone them to insist they correct an error ... obtain for them evidence of the error. That now costs individuals is significant amounts of time. I hope the inquiry looks at this proof-reading cost too.

mike brisco | 07 October 2016  

I may be happy to give up my personal data if all government bodies, business, corporations, banks, politicians, universities, etc. make all their "business" data freely and publically available so that I can use it to be correctly and properly informed about my choices.

Maxi | 10 October 2016  

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