22 December 2011

Nosey Parkers

Three years ago this month the Western Australia state Transport Minister tabled a government review into the release by the Department for Planning & Infrastructure of private vehicle registration details. That information was provided to two non-government bodies: Wilson Parking and Westralia Airports Corporation.

That review followed criticism that the state government had provided Wilson, the dominant Australian carpark operator, with registration details (including home addresses) regarding 25,522 vehicles that had overstayed their welcome at Wilson's private facuilities. The registrants had not expected the state to provide that information to a commercial body.

As the Minister's statement (Legislative Council Hansard of 9 December 2008, p 1042) indicates, Wilson was billed $75,049.15 by the Department for the personal information. The state government subsequently tried to retrieve the information on several occasions and sought legal advice on how to force Wilson to hand back or destroy the data after what was characterised as "an honest mistake" made by "a junior staff member". Wilson "declined to return the information and subsequently made several unsuccessful attempts to pay the account".

The Department's Acting Minister, Ljiljanna Ravlich, said at the time that Wilson Parking should return the records, rather plaintively explaining that -
Now that it is explained to them that this has arisen due to a very junior person making this mistake then I think that morally they should give that information back.

I am very disappointed that this has happened. I can understand the disappointment of the people that have received these notices, but what I can tell you is that I am doing everything in my power to make sure that this does not occur again.
A Wilson representative demurred, commenting that "We're entitled to be able to, in accordance with the road traffic act, receive this information and then use it commercially to follow up on people who aren't complying with our terms and conditions". no enthusiasm there for changing the Act.

The document tabled by Ravlich's colleague noted a finding by the WA Corruption & Crime Commission (alas not online) that "no misconduct" had occurred. It was accompanied by the Minister's announcement that the department had agreed to implement all of the review’s 34 recommendations, including changes to legislation. He stated that "I will now progress this legislation as a matter of priority" and would fully support bringing about cultural change within the licensing area.

Three years later Wilson, the state government and registrant privacy are again in the news. The SMH reports that -
The confidential details of 10,000 WA drivers have been revealed to a private parking company pursuing customers for unpaid parking fees.

The state government gave the information to Wilson Parking during September and October after the company took action in the Supreme Court to be able to contact a handful of drivers who had parking debts.

The government was ordered by the Supreme Court to make the details available, but rather than only the targeted drivers', 10,031 other drivers' records were sent.
A thousand here, a thousand there ... the numbers soon add up.

Opposition transport spokesman Ken Travers is reported as commenting that the Government had reneged on its 2008 commitment, repeated in 2010, to protect drivers' confidential details.
This is just another example of a government that is quick to grab the headlines but when it comes to action and protecting people it is nowhere to be seen.

It is outrageous for the Barnett Government to not only renege on their promise, but it never informed the public their private details were being released.

If the government intends to release personal information there must be the proper framework in place for managing that information
Travers called for safeguards. He may be waiting some time, given the slow pace of legislative reform, complacency within the government transport/registration agencies and silence on the part of privacy advocates.

Last year Wilson won a WA Supreme Court order for access to the names and addresses of 20 vehicle owners that Wilson argued had not paid its parking breach notices. With that precedent, Wilson was back in court in July this year. The Transport Department was ordered to provide details regarding a further 10,000 motorists, claimed to represent about $600,000 in unpaid breaches.

That action has attracted criticism, given that Wilson does not have the authority to issue fines, instead relying on parking infringement notices under contract law (characterised - delightfully - as not a fine but a "pre-calculation" of Wilson's lost revenue and enforcement costs, ie liquidated damages).