Identity theft fear stalls e-commerce in Australia

Australians do not trust online business to protect their identities and financial data, according to a national survey released by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner Tuesday.

Although more than 1.5 million households and small businesses have acquired broadband connections since 2004, the 2007 Community Attitudes Towards Privacy Study of 1503 respondents found users believe doing business over the Internet exposes them to a heightened risk of identity fraud and data theft.

With half of the respondents citing they are more concerned about doing transactions over the Web than last year, a further 45 percent said the risk of ID theft is highest by using “the Internet in general”, online banking and e-transactions.

The potential of ID theft was reportedly higher in general use of the Internet (27 percent) than having ID such as a wallet, passport or other documentation stolen (22 percent).

Not surprisingly, some 65 percent of respondents are more concerned about providing personal details over the Internet compared to hard copy formats, while a quarter admitted to providing false information on online forms to protect their privacy.

Entrusting businesses over the phone with credit card details was considered safe (3 percent).

About 136 people that responded to the survey have been victims of identity theft and a further 256 know people who have had identities stolen. Australian Privacy Commissioner Karen Curtis said people are cautious about supplying information over the Internet because of the rapid evolution of technology.

“It is understandable that Australians hold concerns about the impact technology can have on their privacy, particularly given the rapid pace at which technology has evolved in recent years,” Curtis said.

“The best way to address these concerns is for people to arm themselves with knowledge of privacy safeguards built into technologies, as well as having an understanding of their rights under the Privacy Act.”

Curtis’ comments resonate with suggestions by New South Wales Council of Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy that privacy is playing “catch-up” with evolving technology, notably in biometric technology.

“It reflects badly on how important privacy is to the industry and will result in a lack of public confidence when it is time for them to give-up their information when adopting biometrics,” he said.

Industry and users have raised privacy concerns about the storage and use of biometric data acquired through techniques including fingerprinting, voice identification, iris scanning and deep-palm reading.

Attacking Australia’s privacy laws, Murphy said there has been a twenty-one fold increase in privacy complaints received by the council since 1991 with an eleven-fold increase in complaints about biometrics.

“Despite Europe’s hard-line privacy regulations, Australian privacy laws are weak [and] the privacy office is under-resourced because it takes three to five years for a complaint to be fully investigated,” he said adding that the council will put in a submission to government allowing people to sue for privacy breaches if business is holding information against their will.

Formed in 1963 as a self-funded body for the protection of civil rights, the NSW Council of Civil Liberties and has around 2000 members including 200 barristers and 400 solicitors.

It lobbies government on privacy infringements, provides legal representation to victims of privacy violations, and participates in public interest debates.

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