By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
It has been reported that the Queensland Freedom of Information Office (QFOI) and the State’s Police Force (QPS) are working together to prevent citizens from accessing their own personal data.
Restricting access to information
The Queensland Police Records and Information Management Exchange (QPrime) database stores a range of personal information about Queensland residents.
Officers from the QPS and QFOI sat down for a meeting last year to discuss the ‘nature or the breadth of the applications that were being received and the consequences of the breath of those…’.
The government agencies say they ‘identified there were much broader public policy implications to be considered in terms of what documents get released’, before agreeing that citizens should be block from accessing information about themselves on the database.
Right to access personal data
Privacy advocates has slammed the ‘behind closed doors’ meeting as well as the decision of the agencies to ‘quietly agree’ not to release the data.
They point out that in a democracy, it is fundamental for citizens to have access to personal data held by government agencies in order to make the state accountable for misconduct and help safeguard against abuses of power.
They are concerned by the fact the meeting and its resolution occurred in the absence of consultation with other organisations or agencies, making it appear the QPS and QFOI are ‘in cahoots’ with denying citizens important rights to information that is being held about them – information that can expose illegal monitoring and investigations, among other things.
President of the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Justice Martin Daubney, has launched a scathing criticism of the conduct, stating:
‘It’s starting to sound awfully like the police and the [QFOI] sat down behind closed doors to set matters of policy… Can you just sit back and think about how this looks? If it were to be the subject of discussion, I don’t know, on the front page of a metropolitan daily, you know, how would that look?
“There’s this old-fashioned thing called the rules of natural justice and giving people the opportunity to be heard.”
Access to information
Queensland privacy laws currently require government agencies that hold personal information to grant individuals access.
One of the reasons for this rule is that people should be allowed to check and review their own information, and request that it be changed. There are limited exceptions to this rule, including where it is against the “public interest”.
Since 2016, the QPS has been routinely refusing access on this ground.
If police refuse to release information, the next step is to apply for access to access through the QFOI – which is meant to be an independent body that reviews contested information access decisions made by state government agencies.
No blanket refusal
The QPS has released a statement to the effect it does not have a policy of ‘blanket refusal’ to access.
It claims the ‘right to information’ is still assessed on an individual basis, and that refusal only occurs if release would “likely be contrary to the public interest as it causes significant detriment to the QPS law enforcement activities”.
Concealing police corruption?
However, the chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation, David Vaile, suggests that police are engaging in the routine refusal of access, and one of the reasons may be to conceal the extent of police data breaches and other illegal activities, as well as to conceal evidence of its mismanagement of information and procedural breaches.
In one case, an officer was charged for looking up the personal details of his former girlfriends as well as the former Australian netball captain, Laura Geitz, “out of curiosity”.
More recently, Senior Queensland Police Officer Neil Punchard was charged with nine computer hacking offences for using the QPrime Database to look up the confidential details of a domestic violence victim. He then gave the woman’s new address to his friend, the woman’s abusive former partner.
Social Justice advocate Renee Eaves has also publicly revealed that when she was able to access her file from the QPrime database, it showed police had accessed her records 1,400 times over eight years.
There are concerns that many officers who have illegally used restricted databases have gone undisciplined, with a report finding that QPS took no disciplinary action against 52 of the 59 officers investigated internally for computer hacking during a 13-month period.