26 September 2023

New PS privacy guide for pandemic

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Updated privacy guidelines for Departments and Agencies during the COVID-19 health crisis have been released by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

In a statement, the OAIC said the advice had been developed to keep workplaces safe and to help with personal information handling during the virus response.

“We understand Australian Government agencies and organisations covered by the Privacy Act 1988 are facing unprecedented challenges in combating the spread of COVID-19,” the OAIC said.

It said the advice included guidance on the use and disclosure of individuals’ personal information on a need-to-know basis, collection of personal information reasonably necessary to prevent or manage COVID-19, and advice to staff about how their personal information will be handed in response to any potential or confirmed COVID-19 cases in the workplace.

The Office also acknowledged the impact that COVID-19 may have on the ability of Agencies to meet statutory timeframes for processing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

“We recommend Agencies consider a range of measures to help meet these obligations,” the OAIC said.

It said measures for consideration included encouraging the use of self-service or administrative access schemes; updating Agency FOI website pages to explain the impact of the pandemic on the Agency’s ability to process requests; seeking agreement from the FOI applicant to an extension of time; and seeking additional time from the OAIC should an applicant not agree to an extension.

“We will decide any application for an extension of time to process an FOI request on a case-by-case basis,” the OAIC said.

“Our assessment will take into account factors which may make it challenging for Agencies to meet the statutory timeframe, such as availability of subject matter experts, decision makers or line area staff.”

It said Agencies were advised to be as specific as possible about these factors in their application, including the impact of Business Continuity arrangements.

The 4-page Coronavirus (COVID-19): Understanding your privacy obligations to your staff advice document is available at this PS News link.

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