I welcome today’s matter of public importance debate on the right to privacy, because this is an important debate and I am extremely proud of this government’s record on privacy reform. This is a topic I have had some experience with as chair of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, as the committee explored extensively issues about privacy during our inquiry into the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill.

What has always been apparent to me and, I am sure, to others in this place, is that digital technology is dramatically changing the landscape in regards to personal security, national security, crime and privacy. We need laws that keep up with this changing landscape, and having a decade-old Privacy Act just does not cut it. What the Australian Greens need to acknowledge, if they are going to talk about the Gillard Labor government’s record on privacy, is that it was this government that established the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. It is also this Labor government which has initiated a process to consider whether Australia should introduce a statutory cause of action for serious invasions of privacy.

The point I am making here is that as a government we take privacy and the individual right to privacy very seriously. In fact, only yesterday the House of Representatives passed important government reforms to the Privacy Act to strengthen protection for consumers. The Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Bill provides stronger protections for the way organisations use our information. These reforms achieve a number of important things for consumers, including: clearer and tighter regulation of the use of personal information for direct marketing; an up-to-date and modern credit reporting system, making it easier for consumers to access and correct information held about them, including on their credit reports; a tightening of the rules on sending personal information outside Australia; and a higher standard of protection to be afforded to ‘sensitive information’—which includes health related information, DNA and biometric data. Undertaking these important reforms to protect consumers can only be the action of a government that takes the privacy of its citizens very seriously.

While privacy is important and we are serious about protecting it, the individual right to privacy needs to be balanced against the government having the tools to protect its citizens from crime and threats to national security. The Attorney-General has commissioned a review of national security legislation, because she recognises that our security laws, as with our privacy laws, need to keep pace with current and emerging digital technology. The review has been referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for inquiry and the committee has made some recommendations. I think it is important to recognise that as yet the government has made no decisions on the matters referred to the committee.

Despite this, groups like GetUp! have been running a very misleading campaign about the national security proposals. Before I respond to the misleading information that GetUp! has put into the public domain, I just want to point out that this government should be commended for proposing changes to national security legislation in an open, consultative process, not behind closed doors. To address the claims made by GetUp!: GetUp! claims that telecommunications companies and internet service providers will be required by law to store every message you send, every website you visit and every conversation you have for two years. The truth is that the police and ASIO can get access to metadata which includes information like the time an email is sent and who it is sent to. Their access to this metadata is subject to strict legal safeguards. Storing and obtaining access to metadata is not the same as getting access to the content of communications, yet this is what GetUp! is asserting. Contrary to the claims of GetUp!, the AFP and ASIO will not be able to find out what you said to your friend or colleague in an email, or what you just bought at an online store.

The review will consider whether or not metadata should have to be held for a certain period and for how long, in case it needs to be accessed by the law enforcement authorities. This information is very useful in fighting crime. At the moment, telecommunications companies have their own policies about how long they store this data. Some store it for two years, others delete it. GetUp! has also claimed that ASIO will be able to demand your passwords to access your computer or Facebook account, and if you refuse you could go to jail. There is, in fact, no proposal for people to give up passwords. There are currently powers that allow law enforcement agencies to compel suspects to decrypt data. It is a fact that many serious criminals encrypt their data to evade law enforcement authorities, and that includes pedophiles.

As chair of the cybersafety committee, I know that one of the big criminal threats to children is that of child predators preying on children through online forums such as chat rooms. It is an unpleasant reality, but one we must confront and respond to. I know there would not be anyone in this place who would seriously suggest that we should not have the powers to try to stop these people hurting children, or to at least gather the evidence to arrest and convict them before they cause further harm.

The question the Attorney-General has asked the committee is whether the power to compel decryption of data should extend to live communications like chat rooms. These are sensible, balanced proposals, to which the government, as yet, has not conclusively responded, so I find it unfortunate that the Australian Greens have bought into GetUp!’s fear campaign. This campaign is based on a complete misrepresentation of what these proposals are about. As an example of the misrepresentation, this is what Senator Ludlam had to say in his media release in July this year:

This extreme proposal is based on the notion that all our personal data should be stored by service providers so that every move we make can be surveilled or recalled for later data mining.

I think my explanation has made it clear that all our personal data will not be stored by internet service providers or telecommunications companies under these proposals. As I explained, it is only metadata and it is subject to strict safeguards.

But this is the kind of extreme characterisation of these proposals that the Greens are buying into. A more moderate voice would be that of Australia’s Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, in the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. The commissioner’s submission included the following statement:

The OAIC welcomes the focus of the Inquiry on ensuring that the proposals it canvasses contain appropriate safeguards for protecting the human rights and privacy of individuals.

I refer Senator Ludlam to the terms of reference of the committee’s inquiry, particularly term 3(a) which reads:

The Committee should have regard to whether the proposed responses:

   (a) contain appropriate safeguards for protecting the human rights and privacy of individuals and are proportionate to any threat to national security and the security of the Australian private sector

Of course, Senator Ludlam has all sorts of campaigns going on about privacy rights in the digital environment. While I do not doubt Senator Ludlam is serious about his commitment to privacy, I believe that many of his concerns are misplaced. The internet has many dangerous areas, and contains material which is illegal to manufacture or possess. It is material that should not be trafficked, and this includes child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act.

In his additional comments in the cyber-safety committee’s inquiry into the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill, Senator Ludlam raised a number of concerns, and I will not address all of them. As an example, Senator Ludlam complained that the bill did not specify protections for political offences or offences where the death penalty may apply, but the committee recognised that these matters are covered by the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act.

When it comes to the latest issue—the proposals to change national security legislation—Senator Ludlam’s comments have been completely represented, bearing in mind that the government has not made any decisions at this stage. The data that the government is seeking to have retained would only be used when needed, and only by law enforcement agencies to fight crime. Let us remember the example, which I think most of us know about, of the murder of John Newman in 1994. It was the call charge and mobile phone tower records which were crucial to solving that murder. But if we are going to have a debate about privacy and the rights of individuals then let us have a debate based on the actual facts, not the wild claims that the likes of the Greens and GetUp! wish to make.

Senator Ludlam, I reiterate: the data the government is seeking to have retained would only be used when needed and only by law enforcement agencies to fight crime. So if we are going to have the debate let us make it a debate based on fact and not wild claims and assertions that have been put together by the likes of GetUp! and the Greens.