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Victoria’s current Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection has been appointed by the United Nations to head a global study into big data, under the auspices of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.

  • Big data poses significant commercial opportunities for businesses, but also creates significant risks to the privacy of individuals.
  • This appointment creates an opportunity for Victoria to shape the development of the ‘right to privacy’ globally as it relates to big data, and also remain in-touch with the latest global developments.

Victorian Commissioner appointed to UN role

On 22 July 2016, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Professor Joe Cannataci, appointed David Watts – the present Victorian Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection – to lead a global study into the implications of the growth of big data for privacy. As reported by iTNews, Watts will present a report to the UN General Assembly by October 2017 focusing on the use of big data by law enforcement, national security and ‘smart cities’ planning agencies.

Special Rapporteur Professor Cannataci is an independent expert appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Council in July 2015, and is tasked with examining implementations of the ‘right to privacy’ by UN Member States around the world. At the outset, Professor Cannataci indicated eCommerce, surveillance and biometrics would be at the forefront of his agenda. The commissioning of this report represents a significant milestone for the Special Rapporteur’s work on the right.

Watts will continue in his role as the inaugural Victorian Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection. The Commissioner is tasked with ‘safeguard[ing] Victorians’ information and support information innovation’ within Victorian government departments, and much of the Victorian public sector more broadly.1 Watts is a lawyer by training and has overseen the integration of the Privacy Commissioner and Commissioner for Law Enforcement Data Security.

What is ‘big data’?

‘Big data’ refers to the significant phenomenon that describes the mass creation, capture and analysis of data. Big data is generally described as ‘high-volume, high-velocity and/or high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight, decision making, and process optimisation’.2 Simply, big data can be distinguished from historical uses as it is ‘so large in volume, so diverse in variety or moving with such velocity, that traditional modes of data capture are insufficient’.3 Each day, over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created.4

Immensely valuable for businesses, governments and scientists, analytics derived from big data can be used to deliver more tailored and targeted results. The many applications of big data include fraud and crime prevention, infectious disease surveillance, facial recognition, search engine results, improving operational efficiency and, of course, consumer marketing.

What are the implications of ‘big data’ for privacy?

In May 2016, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) published its draft ‘Guide to Big Data and the Australian Privacy Principles’.5 In particular, the OIAC identified a number of unique considerations which are relevant to ‘big data’. These include increasing the specificity of privacy notifications, giving users choice and increasing assurance of data quality.

Australia takes the big data challenge

Watts’ appointment has the potential to place Victoria at the forefront of privacy as it relates to big data globally. Victoria, and Australia more generally, has the opportunity to not only influence development at an international level, but also will provide a key channel for Victoria to remain at the forefront of ‘cutting edge ideas and approaches’.6 This is a unique opportunity for Victoria in light of the significant challenges that big data will have for the development of privacy protections.

While we expect this area to continue to develop – not least once Watts’ presents his report to the UN General Assembly in October 2017 – recent developments in technology and the law already provide organisations with many reasons to examine or re-examine their use of big data.


  1. See, Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection.
  2. Gartner, ‘The Importance of ‘Big Data’: A Definition’, cited in Department of Finance and Deregulation, ‘The Australian Public Service Big Data Strategy’, 2013.
  3. See also, The Importance of ‘Big Data’: A Definition.
  4. IBM, ‘Bringing big data to the enterprise’.
  5. Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, ‘Consultation Draft: Guide to Big Data and the Australian Privacy Principles’, 2016.
  6. iTNews, ‘Victorian privacy commissioner takes on special UN role’.

Key contacts

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Kaman Tsoi

Special Counsel, Melbourne

Kaman Tsoi