Digital world threatens 'reliable evidence'

Media release: Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Basic concepts such as 'original, reliable, irrefutable evidence' are being turned on their head by the digital society, according to David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia.

In a talk to the recent International Council on Archives congress in Australia, he pointed out that it was up to the archival profession to 'guarantee the long-term availability of the authentic source record'.

'In a world awash with information from various sources, the National Archives of Australia will continue to be viewed as holding the authentic, complete records that can be relied upon as evidence,' said Mr Fricker.

Such true records will preserve the cultural heritage of the nation, support the rights and entitlements of citizens, and provide accountability and transparency of government.

'The business of government is increasingly conducted in cyberspace and, at the National Archives, we guarantee the long-term availability of the authentic source record – the original, the reliable, the irrefutable evidence,' said Mr Fricker. 'We think about these basic concepts a lot – because every one of them will be turned on its head by our digital society – within the next decade.'

Recent public service reforms that call for openness and transparency and the Web 2.0 technologies that put citizens at the centre of planning are matched by increasing levels of scrutiny from the public.

'People rightly expect to find answers in government records and rightly expect to be able to trust those records ¬– that they will be authentic and have integrity,' said Mr Fricker. 'There is also an expectation of easy access to all information. The globalised information marketplace is being shaped by market forces, and government information is increasingly seen as public information.'

The Government's National Cultural Policy due out later this year has as, one of its proposed goals, the use of emerging technologies and rich information sources to enable more people to access and participate in the cultural development of the nation.

'The Archives has a clear role in this,' said Mr Fricker. 'A deep and lasting cultural understanding and national identity can only come from the truth, an accurate “warts and all” account of the past.'

While digital information is more accessible by the public, Mr Fricker says that, without effective preservation plans in place, there is also the risk of losing important information – that fragmented information could evaporate as easily as it was created.

'Getting digital preservation right is an enormous challenge,' he said. 'Obsolete technology can render digitised documents inaccessible for future generations. A 'record' is the thing that provides evidence of business activity and preservation must start the moment the record is created.'

He suggested that, in future, the automatic transfer of records would mean the National Archives could receive digital records as soon as they are created, while government agencies would still have access to use them for day-to-day business.

Other challenges were balancing the individual's right to privacy and the requirements of national security with the principles of freedom of information.

'However, we need to remember that, without access, there is no purpose to preservation,' said Mr Fricker.

Note to Ed: Full speech available at http://www.naa.gov.au/about-us/media/speeches/ica-director-generals-speech.aspx

David Fricker is available for interview.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
  • Melanie Harwood (Assistant Director, Communications)
    t (02) 6212 3755 m 0422 535 213 e melanie.harwood@naa.gov.au
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