Misuse of sensitive personal information by government agencies under the spotlight

By Stephen Easton

Monday August 12, 2019

Should you be telling me this? Getty Images

Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission is taking a close look at examples of government agencies doing the wrong thing with sensitive private information.

Operation Impala will “examine the misuse of personal and sensitive information by public sector agencies” through a public hearing this November. The CCC will then propose reforms to the rules and regulations for the whole state public sector.

“Misuse of information has been a longstanding issue within the public sector,” said CCC chairperson Alan MacSporran.

“Members of the public would rightly expect that any personal information held by public sector agencies would be closely protected and not accessed inappropriately.

“The issues to be examined are serious and potentially involve serious contraventions of individual rights to privacy and can be a criminal offence in some circumstances.

“The public sector holds a large amount of private, confidential and sensitive information. This can include information of a deeply personal nature, the revelation of which may have a substantial detrimental effect on an individual’s privacy, reputation or safety.”

Quite often it is police officers who abuse the personal information they can access and the CCC has been trying to crack down on this in recent years. In one particularly egregious example, the Queensland Police Service agreed that its officer Neil Punchard had passed on the personal details of a woman to her ex-husband, who was subject to several domestic violence orders.

The way the police handled the woman’s complaint made matters worse; it was simply not good enough in MacSporran’s view.

The CCC says following joint efforts with the QPS to drum it into police officers that any kind of unauthorised access to sensitive personal information is unacceptable, there has been a decline in the number of complaints of this variety.

But there has been an increase in complaints containing allegations about the misuse of confidential information relating to other public sector agencies, on the other hand.

“While some progress has been made, there is more work to be done to prevent, detect and deal with this type of corrupt conduct,” said MacSporran, who will chair the public hearing in November.

The hearing will focus on information management by police and corrective services officers as well as education, health and transport bureaucrats. The CCC wants to explore the technical and human factors that have allowed staff in certain agencies to misuse private personal information and also take a whole-system perspective.

The public inquiry will also examine shortcomings in “the legislative, policy and operational environment within each agency” that allow corruption to occur.

Thirdly, the hearing will be an opportunity for robust public discussion of sector-wide reforms that could make it easier for government agencies to prevent, detect and deal with misuse of information, “extrapolated” from the bad examples in specific agencies that will be in the spotlight.

The CCC is accepting public submissions ahead of the November hearing, which will be live-streamed, and the agency will produce a public report after the inquiry wraps up.

“Operation Impala will not focus on commercially sensitive information or data breaches resulting from external computer hacking,” the CCC clarified in a statement.

“Whilst access and release of this type of confidential information is serious and could amount to corrupt conduct, motivations of public servants to engage in this conduct is likely to be very different from the motivations to access personal or sensitive information.”

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