Transparency key recommendation in new privacy guidelines

Privacy commissioner releases ‘Guide to handling personal information security breaches’.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has issued a practical guide to businesses and government agencies showing them how best to respond in the event of a personal information security breach.

The guide comes weeks after the the Australian Law Reform Commission issued its report, For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice, which recommends a re-write of the nation's 20-year-old privacy laws, including the recommendation that mandatory breach notification be introduced into law.

Presently, there is no specific requirement in the Privacy Act to notify individuals when and if a breach has occurred. However, the guide, released by the Australian Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis, believes notification can “operate as an important mitigation strategy” for individuals and also help promote transparency and trust about the organisation or agency.

This is a point that has already been touched on by Gartner security analyst Andrew Walls who has said security will now become a market differentiator for companies/organisations that handle personal info, where people choose the one with the best, most transparent security track record.

"The reality is there probably wont be any more [data breach] activity than normal, we're just going to hear and talk about every one now, which is a healthy thing because it provides transparency and establishes security performance as a market differentiator. But it will be painful for a few years," said Walls.

In the case where there is a real risk of serious harm as a result of a personal information security breach, the guide recommends that the affected individuals be notified.

Such was the case with Ticketek which issued an apology to some of its members after human error exposed over 13,000 email addresses in a botched newsletter mailout a fortnight ago.

However, not all notifications are equal. “While notification is an important mitigation strategy, it will not always be the appropriate response to a breach. Providing notification about low risk breaches can cause undue anxiety and de-sensitise individuals to notice.”

The guide outlines four key steps for organisations to consider when responding to a breach or suspected breach. The first step is to contain the breach and do a preliminary assessment. “Once an agency and organisation has discovered or suspects that a personal information security breach has occurred, they should take immediate common sense steps to limit the breach.”

Step two is to evaluate the risks associated with the breach. Factors worth considering when accessing the breach include identifying what personal information is involved; what is the context of the information; and assessing what is the risk of harm that could result to individuals.

The third step is to consider notification.

“Notification can be an important mitigation strategy that has the potential to benefit both the agency or organisation and the individuals affected by a personal information security breach. The challenge is to determine when notification is appropriate. While notification is an important mitigation strategy, it will not always be the appropriate response to a breach. Providing notification about low risk breaches can cause undue anxiety and de-sensitise individuals to notice. Each incident needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis to determine whether breach notification is required.”

The final step is to prevent future breaches. Key to this is a prevention plan which may include a security audit of both physical and technical security or a review of policies and procedures.

Although compliance with the guide is recommended, it is not mandatory. The full guide can be viewed here.

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