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Tuesday, 7 December 1993
Page: 4028


Senator HARRADINE (4.54 p.m.) —This report of the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies is an important report as it goes to the question of the protection of privacy of individual Australians. The Senate over the years has regarded as a special duty the protection of the rights of individual citizens. That has always been regarded by the Senate as one of its special functions.

  On 18 August 1993, the Senate referred to the committee for inquiry and report the following matter:

The 0055 service offered by Telecom called `Reverse Phone Directory', which enabled subscribers to match private telephone numbers with specific residential addresses and the development of a proper and enforceable code of conduct to protect the privacy of Telecom customers from developments of this kind.

I indicate—the report notes this on page 3—that the reverse phone directory referred to the committee for inquiry was not actually offered by Telecom, as could be inferred by the committee's terms of reference. The report states:

While the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) provided by Telstra Corporation Limited (Telecom's parent company) is used to access the service, and the Service Provider of the 0055 technology is in a contractual relationship with Telstra for access to the PSTN, Telstra stressed in its submission that the suppliers of the several reverse directories currently on the market are not associated with Telstra in any way and their reproduction of the information contained in the conventional printed directories had not been authorised.

This report, though brief, is important. I think honourable senators would do well to read it and the public would do well to obtain copies. Just to explain, as the committee report does, reverse directories are directories which enable a user to ascertain a name and address by reference to a phone number, or the name and phone number by reference to an address. Unlike traditional printed directories, reverse directories are computer based. Whilst the reverse phone directory, RPD, is a relatively new initiative, reverse directories have been available in Australia for several years.

  Telstra's submission informed the committee that these reverse directories are compiled through a process of rekeying or scanning the entries contained in conventional printed directories and reproducing the information on a CD-ROM disk. The CD-ROM disk can then be loaded onto a computer where a number of tasks can be performed, including number to name searching. Honourable senators will realise that this has great and grave privacy implications.

  The committee received submissions from a number of organisations and groups and the committee is grateful for those submissions. We received submissions from Austel; Barwon Bank Pty Ltd; the Privacy Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission; the Telephone Service Providers Association of Australia; Telstra Pty Ltd, which is Telecom Australia; and the Victoria Police. We are most grateful for those submissions and the cooperation of those organisations with the work of the committee.

  On 13 August Telecom announced a permanent ban from its network of all 0055 reverse directory services containing information about residential customers. In a prominent media announcement on 23 August it stated that, because of concerns having been expressed by many people about personal information being disclosed by the privately operated 0055 reverse directory service, the residential search reverse service was no longer available on its network.

  It also had an assurance from a private operator that, prior to any complaints being lodged, that operator had initiated privacy considerations to clarify what it believed to be its obligations. That is all to be supported, but the committee concluded that, whilst that private operator claimed the residential component of the RPD had been permanently suspended, there is a possibility that the service might be reintroduced in the future, unless the regulatory situation is settled.

  What does the committee recommend for that regulatory situation? The committee has made certain recommendations which I think should be placed on the record. Our first recommendation is:

  That the principle of informed consent apply in relation to the use and re-use for commercial purposes of telephone directories containing personal details of individual subscribers.

Our second recommendation is:

  That the Telephone Information Services Standards Committee implement as a matter of priority an amendment to the 0055 Code of Practice to entrench this principle.

Our third recommendation is:

  That the Information Provider offering the Reverse Phone Directory service be instructed by Telstra—

that is Telecom—

to immediately amend the 0055 message to indicate that only business information based on Yellow Pages is available from the service.

Our fourth recommendation is:

  That the Government, in its consideration of AUSTEL's December 1992 Telecommunications Privacy report, ensure that all telecommunications carriers and service providers will be required to provide subscribers with such privacy protection as the right to refuse, free of charge and without justification, to have their personal data included in a directory, and that the consent of silent number subscribers must be obtained before their personal data is provided by directory inquiries services.

I understand, of course, that this could well be costly, but I believe that the interests of privacy are paramount in this particular area, and the Senate committee was conscious of all the factors involved when it came to those conclusions.

  I commend the report to the Senate. I think the Senate should realise that this is a hard working committee. It is composed of persons with very diverse views on a range of subjects. The Chair of the committee is Senator the Hon. Margaret Reynolds and the Deputy Chair is Senator John Tierney. We have Senator Bourne representing the Australian Democrats; Senator Burns from Queensland, Senator Barney Cooney from Victoria and Senator Stephen Loosley from New South Wales representing the ALP; Senator John Herron from Queensland representing the Liberal Party; and me.

  We have made unanimous recommendations, one of which was recently directed to state censorship ministers on the question of guidelines for computer and video games. Unfortunately, it appears—and perhaps I am a little premature in saying this because it will be said more authoritatively—that the OFLC has chosen not to accept the unanimous recommendations of our committee in respect of that matter. Perhaps the federal and state Attorneys-General and censorship ministers should have a good look at what the Senate committee has unanimously recommended.

  On the subject of the current motion, it is urgent that our report be heeded because it has grave ramifications for the privacy of individuals within Australia. If organisations can access the names and addresses of individual Australians simply by accessing a telephone number through a CD ROM purchased by a company or a government department, it will be an intrusion into the privacy of the individuals if they have not had an opportunity to make clear that that information should not be available.

  Finally, I refer the Senate to our report at page 13, paragraph 2.24, which states:

  The Committee concludes that, while it is claimed by—

and I will not mention the name of the private organisation—

that the residential component of the RPD is `permanently suspended', there is a real possibility that the service might be re-introduced in the future unless the regulatory situation is settled. One of the Committee's research staff has rung the relevant 0055 number and, at extra expense caused by various malfunctions of the service, ascertained that the service still claims to provide residential and business information, although `at present only business numbers will be given in full'. Clearly, the service exists and could be re-activated at short notice.

Unless the committee's recommendations are promptly taken account of, it is our view that there will be serious privacy consequences for a large number of Australians. I take this opportunity to thank the members of the staff of the committee for their excellent work.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Panizza) adjourned.

  Debate resumed.