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Personal Information: What's it all 'about'?

For the past few years, a crucial case has been playing out in Australia's legal system over the treatment of metadata in privacy law. The next stanza is due to be written soon in the Federal Court.

It all began when a journalist with a keen interest in surveillance, Ben Grubb, wanted to understand the breadth and depth of metadata, and so requested that mobile network operator Telstra provide him a copy of his call records. Grubb thought to exercise his rights to access Personal Information under the Privacy Act. Telstra held back a lot of Grubb's call data, arguing that metadata is not Personal Information and is not subject to the access principle. Grubb appealed to the Australian Privacy Commissioner, who ruled that metadata is identifiable and hence represents Personal Information. Telstra took their case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which found in favor of Telstra, with a surprising interpretation of "Personal Information". And the Commissioner then appealed to the next legal authority up the line.

At yesterday's launch of Privacy Awareness Week in Sydney, the Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim informed us that the full bench of the Federal Court is due to consider the case in August. This could be significant for data privacy law worldwide, for it all goes to the reach of these sorts of regulations.

I always thought the nuance in Personal Information was in the question of "identifiability" -- which could be contested case by case -- and those good old ambiguous legal modifiers like 'reasonably' or 'readily'. So it was a great surprise that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, in overruling the Privacy Commissioner in Ben Grubb v Telstra, was exercised instead by the meaning of the word "about".

Recall that the Privacy Act (as amended in 2012) defines Personal Information as:

    • "Information or an opinion about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable: (a) whether the information or opinion is true or not; and (b) whether the information or opinion is recorded in a material form or not."

The original question at the heart of Grubb vs Telstra was whether mobile phone call metadata falls under this definition. Commissioner Pilgrim showed that call metadata is identifiable to the caller (especially identifiable by the phone company itself that keeps extensive records linking metadata to customer records) and therefore counts as Personal Information.

When it reviewed the case, the tribunal agreed with Pilgrim that the metadata was identifiable, but in a surprise twist, found that the metadata is not actually about Ben Grubb but instead is about the services provided to him.

    • Once his call or message was transmitted from the first cell that received it from his mobile device, the [metadata] that was generated was directed to delivering the call or message to its intended recipient. That data is no longer about Mr Grubb or the fact that he made a call or sent a message or about the number or address to which he sent it. It is not about the content of the call or the message ... It is information about the service it provides to Mr Grubb but not about him. See AATA 991 (18 December 2015) paragraph 112.

To me it's passing strange that information about calls made by a person is not also regarded as being about that person. Can information not be about more than one thing, namely about a customer's services and the customer?

Think about what metadata can be used for, and how broadly-framed privacy laws are meant to stem abuse. If Ben Grubb was found, for example, to have repeatedly called the same Indian takeaway shop, would we not infer something about him and his taste for Indian food? Even if he called the takeaway shop just once, we might still conclude something about him, even if the sample size is small. We might deduce he doesn't like Indian (remember that in Australian law, Personal Information doesn't necessarily have to be correct).

By the AAT's logic, a doctor's appointment book would not represent any Personal Information about her patients but only information about the services she has delivered to them. But in fact the appointment list of an oncologist for instance would tell us a lot about peoples' cancer.

Given the many ways that metadata can invade our privacy (not to mention that people may be killed based on metadata) it's important that the definition of Personal Information be broad, and that it has a low threshold. Any amount of metadata tells us something about the person.

I appreciate that the 'spirit of the law' is not always what matters, but let's compare the definition of Personal Information in Australia with corresponding concepts elsewhere (see more detail beneath). In the USA, Personally Identifiable Information is any data that may "distinguish" an individual; in the UK, Personal Data is anything that "relates" to an individual; in Germany, it is anything "concerning" someone. Clearly the intent is consistent worldwide. If data can be linked to a person, then it comes under data privacy law.

Which is how it should be. Technology neutral privacy law is framed broadly in the interests of consumer protection. I hope the Federal Court in drilling into the definition of Personal Information upholds what the Privacy Act is for.

Personal Information definitions around the world.

Personal Information, Personal Data and Personally Identifiable Information are variously and more or less equivalently defined as follows (references are hyperlinked in the names of each country):

United Kingdom

    • data which relate to a living individual who can be identified

Germany

    • any information concerning the personal or material circumstances of an identified or identifiable individual

Canada

    • information about an identifiable individual

United States

    • information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity ...

Australia

    • information or an opinion ... about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable.

Posted in Privacy

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