The Australian “Ben Grubb” decision and its link to Canada

24 Jan

There’s been some talk about the Federal Court of Australia’s recent decision in the “Ben Grubb” case – Mr. Grubb being the journalist who requested and was denied access to certain data related to his mobile phone usage from his carrier. Although the data was linked to Mr. Grubb’s mobile phone usage, the Court held it was not “information about” Mr. Grubb and therefore was not “personal information” that Mr. Grubb could access under the Australia Privacy Act. The Court explained:

…in every case it is necessary to consider whether each item of personal information requested, individually or in combination with other items, is about an individual. This will require an evaluative conclusion, depending upon the facts of any individual case, just as a determination of whether the identity can reasonably be ascertained will require an evaluative conclusion.

In some instances the evaluative conclusion will not be difficult. For example, although information was provided to Mr Grubb about the colour of his mobile phone and his network
type (3G), we do not consider that that information, by itself or together with other information, was about him. In other instances, the conclusion might be more difficult. Further, whether information is “about an individual” might depend upon the breadth that is given to the expression “from the information or opinion”. In other words, the more loose the
causal connection required by the word “from”, the greater the amount of information which could potentially be “personal information” and the more likely it will be that the words
“about an individual” will exclude some of that information from National Privacy Principle 6.1

In other words, there must be more than a link between information and an individual for the information to be “personal” information. The information must also reveal something “about” the person in a way that engages a reasonable expectation of privacy. I am not sure whether this “guts” the rights provided by the Australia Privacy Act as reported, but this reasoning has been a feature of Canadian law, most notably supported in our Federal Court of Appeal’s Nav Canada case – an authority the Australian court relied upon in determining the outcome of Mr. Grubb’s access request.

Privacy Commissioner v Telstra Corporation Limited [2017] FCAFC 4 (19 January 2017).

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