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Op-ed: Why cybersecurity is a consumer safety issue 

The same consumer protections should apply both online and offline.

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Last updated: 01 March 2022
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

For more than 60 years CHOICE has been fighting for safer products for Australian consumers. From our early successes, like the introduction of labelling for flammable children's clothing in 1967 to our more recent wins on mandatory standards for button batteries and compulsory alcohol percentage labels on hand sanitiser, safety has always been our priority.

Traditionally, we've focused on products and services you can buy instore – safety testing them in our labs, ensuring correct labelling or calling for recalls of products that cause harm. But more recently, we've started to shift our focus to those products and services that more Australians are accessing than ever before but this time, online. 

As the use of digital products and services increases in Australia, so too does the risk of harm

In Australia alone, more than 99% of people over the age of 18 turned to the internet to access services, work and socialise during the global pandemic. More than ever, we've relied on digital products and services to do our shopping, email colleagues, stream a movie or video-call a friend. But as the use of digital products and services increases in Australia, so too does the risk of harm. 

To protect against these harms, we trust and rely on companies to ensure the security of their systems and of our sensitive information. In short, we require cybersecurity – a layer of safety for consumers online. 

In the same way that we place our trust in manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products (although without the General Safety Provision in Australia, this trust is sometimes misplaced), we reasonably expect the online businesses we hand our information to will keep it safe. We often have to supply our information as a condition of accessing a product or service. With this catch-22 at play, we have no choice but to trust that our information is kept safe. 

Unfortunately, when a business doesn't prioritise cybersecurity, it can lead to data breaches of our sensitive information. These breaches can have real world consequences, such as hacking, identity theft, scamming and financial loss.    

Consumers need more protection

So what can we do about it as consumers? At the moment, not much. Currently, there are limited legal options for consumers to seek remedies or compensation for cybersecurity incidents. And while the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) has played a prominent role in legal action for physical goods, it hasn't yet been used to compensate consumers for cybersecurity incidents. 

There are limited legal options for consumers to seek remedies or compensation for cybersecurity incidents

This doesn't have to remain the case. As the market transforms, our laws should be flexible enough to adapt to the circumstances. We know this is possible through the consumer guarantees framework – a key protection of the consumer law. When you buy goods, the seller guarantees that the goods will be of 'acceptable quality' – meaning they are safe, durable and free from defects. 

As we use more digital products and services in our daily lives, CHOICE is eager to see the application of consumer guarantees online so that the same protections you'd expect for tangible goods are applied to digital goods and services. 

What we think should happen

At CHOICE, we believe that as the market transforms, so too should the laws that govern it. We continue to see emerging technologies that enable new digital goods and services to appear on a daily basis. 

But while these can be beneficial, we need to ensure consumers are not left behind. The same consumer protections that are accessible offline should be accessible online too. 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.