State, territory, and federal governments have agreed to the first national data sharing program that will ease the movement of data between jurisdictions.

The formation of the Australian Data Network follows an intergovernmental data sharing agreement signed by the National Cabinet in early July which commits Australian state, territorial and federal governments to share data with one another “where it can be done securely, safely, lawfully and ethically” and “in accordance with established privacy standards”.

At a meeting last Friday, data and digital ministers from the Commonwealth, NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and the ACT worked out which policy areas would be prioritised for the initial data sharing arrangements.

Those areas include waste management, road safety, and natural hazards and emergency management – an issue that came to light during the devastating 2019-20 summer bushfires.

Future policy areas for national data sharing may include family, domestic and sexual violence, Closing the Gap initiatives, and Veterans’ health, a communiqué from the 13 August meeting said.

Digital services ministers from around the country also agreed to four “advance cross-cutting initiatives” including the creation of an Australian Data Network, the standardisation and improvement of data to simplify its sharing, and using a model for aggregating de-identified data.

A spokesperson for Stuart Robert, the Minister representing the Commonwealth at the Data and Digital Ministers’ Meeting, said data sharing would benefit Australians in a number of ways.

“Responsibly, securely and seamlessly sharing data between governments is an efficient use of resources and will help drive economic value, innovation, improve services, and deliver better outcomes for Australians,” the spokesperson said.

“The objectives of the Intergovernmental Agreement include sharing data in the public interest for the purposes of informing policy decisions; designing, delivering, and evaluating programs; tracking implementation; and improving service delivery outcomes.”

More data, more problems

The Commonwealth expressed an unsated appetite for intergovernmental data sharing arrangements when it introduced the ill-fated Identity Matching Services Bill 2019.

Before it was scrapped, that bill sought to provide the government with capacity to build a facial recognition database using biometric information like state-issued drivers licences.

Its next attempt at greater access to data has been through the Data Availability and Transparency Bill 2020 which wants to make it easier for Commonwealth entities to share data between one another.

Digital rights activists are wary of the government’s data sharing ambitions, citing historical misuse of cross-referenced data in schemes like the disastrous robodebt debacle – which Stuart Robert oversaw as Minister for Government Services.

Lucie Krahulcova, Executive Director of Digital Rights Watch, said there was concern data could once again be used to create “gotcha moments” against citizens.

“It’s not really a voluntary relationship people are entering into,” she said.

“Government holds this information on people even if they don’t want them to in order to deliver these services.

“Giving people a choice to opt-out is important. We saw that with MyHealth record when, people are given an option [to opt-out] they’re happy to exercise it.”

Justin Warren, a board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia, said the kind of data arrangement being drummed up by Australia’s governments sits in a complicated legal space, as it interacts with national privacy laws that are currently under review and human rights legislation that varies from state to state.

“There’s an issue here around data being taken for one purpose – which is necessary to provide a government service – and then being unilaterally decided later that it will be used for another purpose,” Warren said.

“I think there can be a benign goodness to this data sharing. I don’t want to tell every government department they’ve spelt my name wrong nine times, for example, and there are a bunch of digital services we think are tremendous and use all the time.

“But the purpose of a system is what it does, and too many government agencies have a track record of building a system they say is for one thing but does another.”

State police in Queensland and Western Australia, for example, have used data from COVID-19 QR code check-in apps for law enforcement, not public health, purposes.

Government assurances

Aware of the potential for misuse – and fears that governments may be consolidating power through data – governments have issued assurances that the data sharing will only occur with the guidance of internationally-recognised processes and standards.

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Customer Service – the department headed up by NSW’s representative at the Data and Digital Ministers’ Meeting, Victor Dominello – said the program “will be governed by the principles and associated commitments of the Data and Digital Ministers’ agreed Trust Principles”.

“Jurisdictions will apply the Office of the National Data Commissioner (ONDC) Best Practice Guide to Applying Data Sharing Principles which is based on the internationally recognised approach to disclosure risk management, the Five Safes Framework,” the spokesperson said.

The NSW government has been routinely slammed for its poor data management and cyber security, including a recent NSW Auditor-General’s report that found transport agencies had “unacceptably high” cyber risks.

Last year, Service NSW fell victim to a data breach that saw attackers access private information of around 104,000 people whose data was being internally managed and shared through email.

And for all its assurances, Warren says there is little accountability when government gets it wrong, as it did with the robodebt scandal.

“We would like to see, before this power is granted, discussion about what happens when things go wrong,” he said.

“Mistakes will happen, and we accept that, but how many mistakes should we be tolerating before the system is changed?

“I want to have that conversation before people are harmed, rather than five years later.”