IP
March 5, 2020

When it isn’t about you: Defining personal information

The High Court has given a decision that deals with the breadth of “personal information” and when information is truly “mixed information” about multiple people. The Director of Human Rights Proceedings and Privacy Commissioner both intervened in the case and were heard in the High Court. So, the decision addresses the views of those offices.

The Privacy Act applies to “personal information” which is defined as information about an identifiable individual. Relevantly, the Act requires organisations to disclose all personal information to that person, unless it can be withheld on one of the specified grounds in the Act.

In this case, Mr Taylor asked the Department of Corrections for copies of everything it held about him. When supplying the information, Corrections redacted the names, position and contact details of its personnel. Mr Taylor argued that was information about him and therefore should have been supplied unless, in each instance, the redaction was justified on one of the grounds to withhold information under the Privacy Act.

The parties other than Corrections approached the case on the basis the redacted information was mixed information (i.e. the personal information of more than one person) and said that the redacted information should have been treated as personal information, and then the withholding grounds applied. The Court said the information isn’t mixed information just because one person’s information is on the same page as another’s so the “mixed information” cases didn’t apply.

The Privacy Commissioner and Director of Human Rights Proceedings both submitted that the definition of “personal information” is crucial to the operation of the Act and must be interpreted very broadly, especially in the context of the right to access personal information. The Court didn’t agree.The Court said the meaning of personal information must be uniform regardless of which principle is under consideration.

The Court decided that the redacted information was not personal information with respect to Mr Taylor. That is, that the name of a staff member who sent an email about Mr Taylor was not information about him; there was nothing wrong with redacting it.  

While Mr Taylor had argued that analysing correspondence about him with reference to particular personnel was important and would show information “about” him, the Court did not agree that this meant the personnel information itself was “about” Mr Taylor. In a helpful summary, the Court said “the usefulness of the information that may be obtained under a principle 6 access request and the requester’s genuine and proper interest in it does not, of itself, render it personal information.”

Watch this space for any appeal. ‍

 

“the usefulness of the information that may be obtained under a principle 6 access request and the requester’s genuine and proper interest in it does not, of itself, render it personal information.”

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