Red tape and a culture of secrecy are hampering the sharing of data that would help government departments operate more efficiently, according to a Productivity Commission (PC) report whose findings will see a National Data Commissioner (NDC) appointed to promote better and more effective data sharing.

An explosion in the generation and use of data had created a “kaleidoscope of new business models, products and insights,” the Productivity Commission Inquiry Into Data Availability and Use noted.

Yet this evolving landscape had been compromised by a “lack of trust by both data custodians and users in existing data access processes, and protections and numerous hurdles to sharing and releasing data,” the report continued. Such controls “are choking the use and value of Australia's data.”

Freeing up the chokepoint

The government’s response will see $65 million over four years poured into reforms including the establishment of a Consumer Data Right (CDR) that would help the government identify and facilitate “active data use by consumers”, and deliver a range of different data access arrangements in line with the relative levels of risk associated with different types of data.

CDR powers would give consumers and small businesses “opportunities for active use of their own data” including the right to view and download their data, request edits or corrections, and be advised when their data is traded to third parties.

The formation of a Data Standards Body (DSB) will promote technical collaboration within the industry, promoting consistent and transparent data access and transfer standards. This would address existing barriers created by a lack of “standardised and transparent approaches” to data sharing as well as “unnecessarily complex” processes for accessing data.

Finally, a new Data Sharing and Release Act will formalise Data Sharing and Release (DSR) arrangements to facilitate sharing within set governance requirements. The DSR Act would supersede a mishmash of more than 500 secrecy provisions and regulations that, the government noted, have caused data paralysis within many government agencies.

“As a result of that complexity, many agencies had adopted a default position of saying ‘no’ to requests for data access,” Minister for Human Services Michael Keenan said in announcing the government’s response, “even when the request has come from another government department or when the sensitivity of the information is low.”

Clearer and more consistent regulations would pave the way for greater use of public data by government agencies, with a stated goal of “further increasing the value that is derived from Australia’s public data.”

A fragile trust

Such measures may be welcomed by citizens demanding increasingly digital and efficient government services – but they are also likely to stoke concerns among many others. The recent Unisys Security Index 2017 found that Australians’ concerns about data security had soared in 2017, from an index score of 143 in 2014 to 173 last year.

The Australian score rocketed from 106 in May 2014 to 157 in April 2017 – a 51 percent increase that reflects a climate of increasing concern about widespread use and misuse of data.

And those figures were derived long before the ongoing Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal piqued concerns over massive breaches of citizens’ private information, such as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s recent admission that it lost the financial records of nearly 20 million accounts.

In a previous Newspoll survey, 49 percent of Australians expected that government agencies would see a data breach within the next 12 months – higher than any other industry except for telecommunications providers.

“Consumer trust is very fragile,” Unisys director of border and national security programs John Kendall wrote in the report, which recommended that organisations balance privacy, security and convenience while addressing “a growing concern that shared and aggregated data jeopardises privacy and increases the probability that sensitive personal data will fall into the wrong hands”.