The Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Bill 2012 was passed in Parliament today, giving privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim more powers, including the right to seek civil penalties in the case of serious breaches of privacy.
The legislation also permits the commissioner to conduct assessments of privacy performance for both Australian government agencies and private companies.
The reforms introduce a single set of privacy principles called the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs) and a number of changes to how personal information is handled, including when it can be used for direct marketing and sent overseas.
Privacy Act Reforms- the implications for the digital environment
Data breach liability should lie with companies:Survey
Privacy bill given the go-ahead
"From the commencement of the new laws, I will be able to accept enforceable undertakings and seek civil penalties," Pilgrim said in a statement.
"While I will continue to work with agencies and businesses to help them comply with privacy laws, I will not shy away from using these powers in appropriate cases."
Pilgrim said the new APPs should mean that it will be easier for organisations to comply with privacy laws and for individuals to know what laws protect the privacy of their personal information.
While the changes to the Privacy Act will not commence for 15 months, he said that government agencies and businesses should start preparing now by examining current privacy policies, business processes and practices.
"During 2013 the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner [OAIC] will be releasing guidelines on the application of the new APPs and how they will apply to everyday situations," Pilgrim said. However, he warned that consumers need to start preparing for changes to credit reporting laws which mean that some organisations will be able to collect more information about people's credit worthiness.
This information includes whether a person has made or missed a payment on a credit card or loan. "If a consumer misses making a payment from as early as December 2012, it will be able to be recorded on their credit record and may affect their ability to access credit in the future," Pilgrim said.
"People will not only need to be vigilant about paying their bills on time, they should also make sure that the information held by these organisations is correct."
He added that people should take steps to protect their personal information such as reading privacy policies of the organisations they deal with.
Speaking at a second reading of the Privacy Bill amendments recently, ACT Liberal senator Gary Humphries said the Coalition would be supporting the legislation but added that Parliament was passing amendments which are "far from satisfactory" at this point in time.
"This legislation does not represent a carefully worked through piece of law making which addresses the needs of stakeholders and addresses concerns made by critics in the course of the consultation process which went on over four years following the report of the Australian Law Reform Commission," he said.
According to Humphries, many of the privacy stakeholders were dismissive to the "point of contempt" of what the government was attempting to do with this legislation.
Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia