It doesn’t get much more humiliating: a major backdown slipped out at 8.16pm, in effect acknowledging that what your critics have been saying, and what you fought so hard against, is entirely correct: “The Government will strengthen privacy provisions under the My Health Record Act, removing any doubt regarding Labor’s 2012 legislation,” Greg Hunt admitted last night, after days of insisting, absurdly, that black (or at least black letter law) was white and that the absence of any warrant requirement in the health records legislation meant there was no warrant requirement for police, the ATO and other regulators to access your data.

Presumably Hunt will apologise to the parliamentary library staff who made that exact point before his minions bullied the library into retracting and censoring the article.

Hunt finally took everyone’s, including Crikey’s, advice, and tried to blame the whole thing on Labor, referring repeatedly to “Labor’s 2012 legislation” in just 200 words in his media release. Too little, too late, Greg — you made this disaster your own days ago when you tried to bully critics who raised the issue.

But Hunt’s mishandling of it has served to shine a light on the whole issue of how police and regulators should be able to access private information. The government has in effect admitted that the high standard of judicial oversight is required for access to private health information of the kind that is available in health records. But if it is required for health records, why isn’t it required for access to metadata of the kind the government insists telcos retain about citizens as part of of its mass surveillance scheme?

Metadata isn’t different to your health records in terms of its privacy impact. Health records may provide great detail about a particular medical condition you have, but your phone call data to medical professionals, and your location data from your phone about where you are, will provide a good guide to which professionals you are seeing and for how long. Going to a mental health professional? An oncologist? A reproductive health clinic? When you go and how long for and how often is all available under the government’s data retention scheme.

No warrant is required for that. Why would someone bother going to the trouble of getting a warrant for medical records when they can get very similar information without one?

Metadata isn’t limited to health, of course; it provides that same rich detail about all areas of your life. Where did you sleep last night? Who was there? Whom are you calling and texting, and when? That’s the beauty of metadata. Your health records are only ever about you. Metadata can be about everyone you interact with. No warrant for that. Nothing. Just a one-page pro forma from the police. But for whatever reason, we fetishise health as different. Perhaps this will make more people understand just how much threat governments and corporations pose to their privacy.

As for Greg Hunt, all he’s managed to do is demonstrate what a pack of thin-skinned whingers the Turnbull government is. They react furiously against any perceived slight or objection, no matter how well-founded, and go hunting for those who perpetrated the outrage of criticising them. Why on earth anyone would trust any of their personal information to these bullies is a mystery for the ages.

Peter Fray

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