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Event recap: Privacy debate

On Friday 11 May 2018, as the grand finale to Privacy Awareness Week, the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) held its second public forum for the year in the form a debate. The topic for the debate was, ‘Privacy and technology are inherently incompatible’.

OVIC invited several esteemed guests to participate in the debate from a range of backgrounds. Tom Burton (publisher and award-winning journalist of The Mandarin) acted as moderator for the day. The debaters consisted of the following:

Affirmative team

  • First speaker – Dr Jake Goldenfein (Law lecturer at Swinburne University and board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation)
  • Second speaker – Veronica Scott (Special Counsel at Minter Ellison, leading the firms National Privacy Group, and iappANZ board member)
  • Third speaker – Jessie Taylor (Law lecturer at Monash University and President of Liberty Victoria)

Negative team

  • First speaker – Julian Hebden (Chief Data Officer, Victorian Centre for Data Insights)
  • Second speaker – Dr Christine O’Keefe (Senior Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO Data61 and Adjunct Professor in Mathematics at the University of Adelaide)
  • Third speaker – David Trevorrow (member of the Victorian Student Representative Council and a longstanding member of OVIC’s Youth Advisory Group).

Sven Bluemmel, the Victorian Information Commissioner, introduced proceedings before handing the floor to our moderator. Noting that the debate topic was purposefully provocative, Tom set the stage by discussing the balance between the public appetite for services versus growing concerns about privacy. This high benefit/high risk relationship is just one facet of the privacy and security elements raised by the debate topic of the day.

The first speakers

Jake opened the debate by arguing that a lot of technology interrupts privacy in a meaningful way. Whilst acknowledging that not every piece of technology is incompatible with privacy, he noted that a little bit of inconsistency does not undermine the affirmative team’s stand.

Julian countered this view by stating that technology is what we make it; the issue is not the technology itself, but rather people and how we choose to use it. People, our attitudes, bad corporate practices and loose regulations are to blame (noting that 51% of breaches occur due to human error!).

The second speakers

Taking a different approach, Veronica explained that in the current digital economy, data is the lifeblood of a technology driven system. Technology asks for forgiveness, not permission, and the question that we can’t yet answer is ‘how do we hold technology accountable when its function is automatic decision making?’.

Keeping with the theme of Privacy Awareness Week, Privacy: From Principles to Practice, Christine took a practical approach to her argument by providing real life examples of privacy and technology co-existing. The best objective privacy standard available is that of Apple, who provided improvements to the user experience by developing methods based on differential privacy with a ‘Privacy by Design’ approach. Privacy assurances lead to trust, which lead to robust technology.

The third speakers

Jessie opened her argument with a personal anecdote about privacy breaches and how she has been affected by them. She argued that we have become so complacent when it comes to having our privacy violated, selling our privacy for safety, protection and access to services such as social media.

Representing a younger person’s view, David noted that technology is not something that will, or wants to destroy privacy. Digital technology doesn’t have control over our lives, and the latest evolution of technology is not outside the realms of human control. What we need to look at is the concept of cultural and social expectations set around privacy – it’s a question of ethics and how we as people want to interact with each other.

Wrap up

Following the passionate back and forth between speakers, Tom wrapped up the debate and shared his thoughts on the convincing arguments made on either side, deciding that ultimately, with the complex legal framework and the dynamic technological landscape, the privacy piece is yet to be resolved.

To end the forum, audience members were asked to vote on which side they think won the debate, with Tom declaring it to be a tie!

OVIC would like to extend its thanks to all the speakers who braved the debating podium, Tom Burton for acting as moderator, and to all those who came along on the day. A recording of the debate is available to view on OVIC’s Periscope channel.

Thank you to everyone who attended the events throughout Privacy Awareness Week 2018! If you have any comments or feedback from your experiences throughout the week, please let us know via email. OVIC is always looking for ways to improve its events and we appreciate your feedback.


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