[Note: This article written by Marianna Papadakis was originally published by the Australian Financial Review]

Privacy advocates want government agencies and the private sector to recommit to fundamental principles to prevent too much harvesting of personal data.

A Four Corners program aired on Monday night depicted the intricate web of personal information surreptitiously collected from the everyday movements of an ordinary Australian family by government agencies and private organisations. One revelation was that NSW Police has more than 200 million records of photographed vehicle number plates collected using automatic licence plate recognition technology over the past four years. The technology is used in Queensland too.

A NSW Police spokesman told the program it was a powerful crime-fighting tool enabling police to identify unregistered, uninsured and stolen vehicles despite it was done irrespective of any suspicion for the commission of an offence. NSW Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Coombs said she had requested details of what information was collected and stored, how it was used and who had access to it. “When this information is linked to personal information held by organisations, individuals can be identified, hence the questions to NSW Police around usage and other matters,” she said.

“Number plate identification numbers are not considered personal information under NSW privacy law, because they do not in themselves identify an individual, however many in the community will be concerned,” Dr Coombs said.

The executive director of University of NSW’s Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, David Vaile, questioned why authorities stored ANPR data for five years. Government agencies and companies needed to recommit to established privacy principles as better technology gave them access to more data, he said.

Mr Vaile said it was not inconceivable to, one day, have a network of ANPR cameras on main roads that also used facial recognition technology and were capable of tracking where a person was likely to be going simply by direction they were driving and their destination history.

PRIVACY SO LAST YEAR

“The danger is that you have over-opportunistic business and over-zealous governments seeing eye to eye about how fantastic these new tools are and telling society a brave new world involves big data tools and privacy is so last year,” he said.

“There’s a fundamental conflict of interest between governments protecting individuals, in an environment where privacy can be an impediment to the exploitation of commercial advantage and national security,” he said.

Technology lawyer Kay Lam-MacLeod of IdeaLaw said companies and government departments should only collect personal information they needed, and only use it for the purpose they collected it. Personal information is useful and valuable for companies, especially when analysed across a large groups. People unwittingly give a broad consent to use their information when they open accounts on web sites including social media, she said.

“Facebook doesn’t care what you had for breakfast, but when they know that 20 to 30-year-old women in Brisbane prefer high-fibre cereal, they can sell that to advertisers,” she said.

A spokesman for the federal Attorney-General’s department said government agencies were subject to rigorous oversight by Commonwealth, state and territory ombudsmen and had to meet reporting and accountability requirements. changes to the law legislation which begin in March 2014 would strengthen privacy protections for personal information and increase powers to investigate breaches.

FORCED TO DEFEND ALLEGATIONS

Big technology companies have been recently forced to defend allegations they are assisting government agencies to spy on citizens by publishing transparency reports. Yahoo revealed its first report last week it received 704 data requests from Australian government agencies, applying to 799 user accounts between January and June this year.

Google previously released a similar report but a spokeswoman said it never sold its users’ personal information.

“The privacy and security of the data that users store with Google is central to our dealing with government requests,” she said. “Before complying with a request, we make sure it follows the law and Google’s policies. We notify users about legal demands when appropriate, unless prohibited by law or court order. And if we believe a request is overly broad, we seek to narrow it.”