Federal Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim. Photo: Michele Mossop
Australia's Privacy Commissioner has warned that pending changes to privacy laws are falling behind technology and fail to protect the public from being spied on in their own backyards.
Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim is awaiting bills before Parliament that would strengthen consumer information protection. But the question of whether people have a right to privacy is not addressed.
The laws would give the commissioner the power to penalise companies that fail to protect personal records. Technology giants could face fines up to $1.1 million for privacy lapses. But Mr Pilgrim said technology such as unmanned drones that can take photos in Canberra backyards had not been considered.
''We have to look at the laws and see if they are keeping up with technology … there is a question about if someone buys a drone and starts flying it around the street taking photos in people's backyards and at the moment I'm not sure that we do have a full suite of laws to deal with that.''
He said some states had anti-surveillance laws but Australia lacked a coherent response to emerging technology.
''There has been some actions in the lower courts of people saying their privacy has been breached, but none of the major courts have heard cases - the Federal Court or the High Court.''
In 2011, the Gillard government released an issues paper on the right to sue for privacy. ''I'm not aware at what stage the government is at in considering that,'' he said.
''I think there is a strong argument for it to be considered - there are a number of areas in Australian privacy laws that aren't covered. The Commonwealth Privacy Act doesn't cover the actions of individuals.''
Last financial year the commissioner received 1357 complaints, up from 1222 in 2010-11. ''Close on 60 per cent of our complaints are about the activities of private sector organisations … people often complain about the way their information was used or disclosed in a way they didn't expect.''
He said forwarding information on for direct marketing was a common gripe.
''There would be nothing to stop someone taking an organisation to court, but the courts would have to determine if there was a right to sue for a breach of privacy. Some cases in the lower courts have found that right, but none of the higher courts have yet found a tort of privacy.''
He said the Defence Force Academy cadet allegedly filmed in the shower did not have the right to sue for a breach of privacy.
''I hope the government responds in the not too distant future.''