Privacy-breach consequences emerge as asylum seekers sue Immigration

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) has been targeted by lawsuits from detained asylum seekers who allege the government's failure to protect the privacy of their identities has placed them and their families at risk.

According to reports in The Guardian, detainees were being asked by DIBP authorities to sign waivers that would absolve the department for the implications of its publication of their personal details, after the department inadvertently published to its Web site a file containing the personal details of more than 10,000 asylum seekers.

The Guardian reports 90 applications have already been lodged from three separate detention centres, with more expected to follow.

Reports of the lawsuits come just days before the implementation of new privacy laws that threaten penalties of up to $1.7m for organisations that fail to protect private data. The new laws unify what were previously different public-sector and private-sector regulations, all of which will be required to comply with 13 Australian Privacy Principles (APPs).

Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has not yet indicated the potential penalties for this breach, but the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has committed to investigating the breach.

Ty Miller, a security consultant who is director of Threat Intelligence, said after the breach that it was unlikely to be the work of hacktivists and was more probably a mistake on the part of a developer or system administrator.

Nonetheless, he added, the event reinforced the importance of mooted mandatory breach notification laws. "This is exactly what they are coming in for," he told CSO Australia. "I can't believe it has taken Australia this long to start [considering] forcing organisations to release that they've had a breach, so people can put in controls to lessen the impact on them."

Most companies prefer not to pursue a formal investigation into such incidents, he added. "They want to minimise the impact, which means they're not necessarily going to disclose the security breach. That's where the whole idea of privacy regulation is pretty key, and important in protecting consumers as well as just getting it out there in terms of how many companies are actually deemed breached."

Immigration minister Scott Morrison said in a statement when the breach was reported that the breach was an “unacceptable incident” and that the information “was never intended to be in the public domain”. He welcomed Pilgrim's investigation into the breach.

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