Trust in federal government departments’ handling of personal information declining, survey finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday September 24, 2020


Australians want the government to do more to protect their data and need clearer privacy policies, new research has found.

The Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey 2020 released on Thursday found that Australians trust health service providers the most when it comes to handling personal information, followed by government. Social media is the least trusted.

However, trust in personal information handling by federal government departments has gone down by 14% since 2007, while trust in companies in general has declined by 13%.

Of the 2866 respondents, 83% want the government to do more to protect the privacy of their data, the survey commissioned by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner found.

The community also wants more information and clearer privacy policies to help them manage their privacy. The research found 85% of people have a clear understanding of why they should protect their personal information, but 49% don’t actually know how.

Two-thirds (64%) of those surveyed also didn’t know that they can request access to their personal information from business and government agencies.

Privacy commissioner Angelene Falk says the results are pertinent due to the importance of data during COVID-19, and in the current digital environment where data practices rapidly evolve.

“Understanding community views on the protection of their personal data is critical when we are trying to solve the biggest health and economic crisis of our time,” she says.

“Privacy controls and practices that live up to community expectations will create the trust and confidence that is needed for the public to engage and make data-driven solutions a success.”

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People are increasingly questioning data practices where the purpose for collecting personal information is unclear. The report notes 81% of respondents consider it a misuse for an organisation to ask for information that doesn’t seem relevant to the purpose of the transaction.

Meanwhile, 84% of respondents consider privacy extremely or very important when choosing a digital service, and privacy is the leading consideration when choosing an app or program to download, ahead of quality, convenience and price.

The biggest privacy risks identified by Australians in 2020 are identity theft and fraud (76%), data security and breaches (61%), and digital services, including social media sites (58%).

Community concerns about privacy are based on experience, the survey found, with 59% of respondents having experienced problems with how their personal information was handled in the past 12 months, mostly in relation to unwanted marketing communications or having their personal information collected when this was not required to deliver the service.

Most respondents believe they should have the right to ask a business to delete their personal information (84%) and to seek compensation in the courts for a breach of privacy (78%).

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Respondents indicated that they are more likely to trust a website or service if they have read the privacy policy, but only 20% actually read privacy policies and are confident they understand them.

Parents indicated that they are more concerned about their children’s privacy than their own. While parents let their children access connected devices and digital services early in life, they are uncomfortable with businesses tracking the location of a child without permission (70%) or obtaining personal information about a child and selling it to third parties (69%).

Falk notes that as awareness of privacy issues had increased in recent years, community trust in organisations to handle personal information continued to decline.

“Our research shows Australians want to be protected against harmful practices, and 84% believe personal information should not be used in ways that cause harm, loss or distress,” she says.

She says the report contains important insights into community attitudes relevant to the Attorney-General’s Department’s upcoming review of the Privacy Act 1988, and its findings will inform her office’s input to the review.

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