The Interview: Malcolm Crompton, former Privacy Commissioner of Australia

24 Mar 2015

The aggressive march of technology and the erosion of privacy in our personal lives will ultimately be checked by people, says Malcolm Crompton, former Privacy Commissioner of Australia.

Crompton explains that exploits by individuals like Edward Snowden and others are the symptoms of a world that is in its own way beginning to say it’s had enough.

On the one extreme there are privacy rules as dictated in various regions like the EU and APEC and yet alleged abuses by groups like GCHQ and the NSA.

On the other extreme there is the sheer push of innovation by companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple requiring us to surrender up information.

“What’s being forgotten in a lot of this is human dignity, free will, respect, freedom of choice and all the other things that make us human as opposed to being automatons.”

Crompton served as Australia’s Privacy Commissioner between 1999 and 2004 and led the implementation of private sector privacy law. He is speaking tomorrow at the Digital Enlightenment Forum in Kilkenny organised by Waterford Institute of Technology.

He has been a member of the Microsoft Trustworthy Computing Academic Advisory Board and a number of Reference Groups for research projects on trust in the Internet funded through the European Commission. Crompton is also managing director of Information Integrity Solutions, a global consultancy that advises businesses and governments to meet the high standards expected of them.

Trust and relationships

“If you think about the embodiment of trust and relationships think about the example of the relationship between a person and their doctor. You will only tell your doctor certain things because you trust him or her. But would you tell Google or Apple the same things in terms of HealthKit?

“At the moment Apple is saying we make our money out of devices, not data, but what is likely to happen is that the apps that get developed on the platform by entities not owned by Apple are likely to trade in that data.

“In the right circumstances people are willing to share and trust but one of the things that a lot of the aggressive pushers of technology are doing is they are assuming there is a relationship where one doesn’t exist. And then you have the ‘stop the universe I want to get off’ Luddites who are saying none of this should never happen. But in the real world we are somewhere in between.”

A self-described optimist – “because I have to be” – Crompton served as Privacy Commissioner after being part of the dynamic reforms of the Hawke-Keating Governments, which set Australia up for 20 years of non-stop growth.

“It was the most exhilarating government to work for, full of far-sighted people. In the 1980s and 1990s they understood that we had an aging generation and decided to provide for it by bringing in the world’s best superannuation system to get people saving for their retirement.”

But while Australia’s frontier mentality has led to it being natural adopters of innovation, Crompton says the country can get it wrong too.

Crompton was critical of how the government of John Howard did nothing in the case of David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay to ensure due process, while subsequent governments have also dropped the ball on broadband in Australia, replacing a visionary fibre-to-the-home strategy with a lesser fibre to the kerb compromise.

“Good governance is an immensely complex thing, but good governance is not just an accident, it takes good leadership. Some of that is down to culture, but it also requires inspirational people leading the charge.”

The privacy clash between Europe and North America

From his vantage point Crompton believes there is a clash of culture between the US and Europe when it comes to privacy and data protection.

“One of the things you have to remember in Europe is the Holocaust. The reason more Jews from the Netherlands died proportionately to France was because the Dutch had better records than the French before the Nazi invasions and this enabled the Nazis to round them up. So there’s a very pungent reason for Europe to have a view on privacy that is so viscerally strong.

“In the US there is he first amendment about freedom of speech, but there is also this concept of businesses having the same human rights as individuals and the revered ability to get along and do anything in the US, which is a rigorous, vigorous economy.

“Then these two cultures have clashed and some people have argued that Europe is using data protection in a kind of trade war rather than a human rights theme.

“Certainly Europe has set about occupying the moral high ground on the privacy debate but some laws in Europe do provide for some extraordinary invasions of privacy.”

Crompton indicates that Australia was a forerunner on the privacy issue during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the furore that surrounded the Australia Card debate leading to mass rallies and demos.

“Australia has been thinking about privacy as long as anywhere else in the world and our first laws on privacy emerged in the 1970s.

“Australia has been more pragmatic in how it constructed its privacy laws than Europe, but also we have not been as incredibly free-wheeling as the Americans. This has its advantages and disadvantages. We are a mid-Atlantic solution, with the good bits of Europe and the free-wheeling spirit of the US and I say that as a former Privacy Commissioner. We’ve been watching the debate on both sides of the Atlantic with bemusement.”

Crompton points out that Australia is a member of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum) which includes the world’s largest economy (US), the world’s largest population (China), the world’s largest and second largest countries by size (Russia and Canada), and collectively they produce 40pc of the world’s trade.

“They are not engaged in the European privacy debate. They are where most of the world’s economic growth is happening, so the transatlantic debate about privacy in that context is twee.

“The Americans have basically taken a covert approach to what they are actually doing in compromising the technology of privacy around the world, busting encryption and accessing the keys in order to vacuum up everything that they can.

“The Chinese on the other hand are introducing laws to force the same set of results.

“Which is the better approach, an overt or a covert approach to doing the same thing?

“You could argue that China is arguing the moral high ground but listen to the debate and the Chinese are getting beaten up over espionage and cyber warfare when the very people throwing those terms of abuse are doing just as much.”

People are waking up

Returning to his point about people eventually deciding the debate. “It’s not going to be because they know what is going on, but because they are uncomfortable about what they fear is going on.”

He points to 9-11 and the war against terrorism and how by 2010 people were questioning how intrusive Google Street View could potentially be.

“2010 was a turning point where people began to wake up that something was happening that wasn’t right.

“Snowden happened in a context that was different to the years following 9-11.

“Julian Assange happened to set the scene for Snowden and I think there is now going to be a continuing process of awareness.”

Crompton pointed to recent comments by journalist Glenn Greenwald to the International Association of Privacy Professionals. “He concluded that in looking at Snowden and choose as a performance indicator the number of laws that have changed since then, then you would be sadly disappointed because very little has changed.”

A better indication is that as our digital lives change and become more defensive, individuals are making use of more and more encryption and VPNs.

Where this could change, he reckons, could be in a scenario similar to the end of phone marketing in the US at the turn of the century. “People couldn’t sit down for dinner because the phone would be ringing non-stop. New legislation saw 50m people join the ‘don’t call’ register within the first week. When the phone marketing industry tried to challenge it on constitutional technicalities, the politicians moved in and defeated this and fixed the laws because they knew which way the wind was blowing.”

Crompton concluded: “Ultimately it will be people who will decide how they will defend themselves.”

Malcolm Crompton will be speaking at the Digital Enlightenment Forum in Kilkenny  which takes place on 25 and 26 March organised by Waterford Institute of Technology

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years