New research suggests an overwhelming number of Australians are anxious about their privacy online as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted increased use of QR codes, e-shopping, social media and video conferencing.
The Consumer Policy Research Centre research shows 94 per cent of Australian consumers surveyed are uncomfortable with how their personal information is shared online and 88 per cent do not have a clear understanding of what is involved.
The findings come a decade after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared “privacy is no longer the social norm”. However, Drew MacRae, policy and advocacy officer at the Financial Rights Legal Centre, said consumers’ expectations had shifted.
“Privacy is making a comeback,” he said. “People are slowly realising what is happening out there in the market and discovering that, when they click on the button to agree to some service, some app, or some website, there seems to be all this stuff happening to that data, and people are starting to see the results of it.”
Mr MacRae said Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma had turned privacy into a “barbecue conversation starter”, while the use of QR codes to fight COVID-19 had also made it front of mind.
The codes, which people scan with their mobile phone cameras, are used as an electronic way to check into public buildings to help the government with contact tracing. But there are concerns about third-party versions that could retain the information on where people go and when for marketing purposes.
The Consumer Policy Research Centre, Financial Rights Legal Centre and Financial Counselling Australia have made a joint submission to a review of the Privacy Act arguing it is well overdue for reform.
Their recommendations include banning or restricting certain practices such as using the data for direct marketing or requiring employees to share social media passwords with their employer, un-bundling consent to give consumers more options beyond “take it or leave it”, removing the exemption for small business and introducing special protections for children.
The research, a national survey of 1000 people conducted by Roy Morgan in March, showed Australians have almost given up on reading small print as the number of digital services has proliferated, with 94 per cent of those surveyed saying they did not read all the privacy policies or terms and conditions that applied to them in the past 12 months.
Consumer Policy Research Centre chief executive Lauren Solomon said Australians deserved to have their right to privacy respected by default.
“The reality is we have analogue protections in a digital age,” Ms Solomon said. “There is more personal information flying around than ever before and at the same time, we have seen an uptick in scams and fraud perpetrated.”
While the use of Facebook and Google was steady between 2018 and 2020, the research found significant increases in the frequency of use of online shopping, supermarket rewards cards, tap ‘n’ go payments on the mobile phone and mobile or tablet apps.
Mr MacRae said the Financial Rights Legal Centre saw the consequences of data misuse all the time, including targeting vulnerable people with debt management advertisements or gambling offers.