Australia: Improving Personal Information Privacy Using The Privacy Impact Assessment Guide

Last Updated: 17 September 2007
Article by John Carroll and Catherine Petre

Agencies deal with personal information on a daily basis. Aside from being a legal requirement, protection of personal information privacy is an issue to which the public is increasingly attaching importance. By demonstrating that it will deal appropriately with personal information an agency is likely to increase public confidence in its processes, improve community participation and generally obtain a good public reputation.

A Privacy Impact Assessment ("PIA") is essentially a risk management tool that is utilised by administrations internationally, including Australia, through which an agency is alerted at an early stage to privacy risks posed by existing or planned activities so that it can take steps to mitigate those risks. It involves the identification of a particular activity or project that might raise privacy issues, mapping the information flows that occur in the project and identifying how those processes impact on privacy. From there, recommendations about how the privacy impacts should be managed are developed, with a view to the agency implementing those recommendations. The ultimate aim of conducting a PIA is improving personal information privacy while still achieving the goals behind project.1

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner released a Privacy Impact Assessment Guide in August 2006, which provides a detailed framework for the conduct of PIAs. It is a useful tool for agencies wishing to conduct a formal PIA in relation to a particular activity or simply to review and improve the way that they deal with personal information.

The Guide:

  • explains key concepts such as "personal information" and "function creep".
  • provides indicators of when it will be important to conduct a PIA.
  • outlines the PIA process, from working out whether an agency needs to do one at all, to planning it, to actually conducting the PIA.
  • highlights key privacy messages and privacy risks, so that the user is alerted to privacy issues they need to be aware of at different stages of PIA.
  • contains a range of useful, practical tools in the Modules at the end of the Guide. These tools can be used as part of the PIA process or an agency could use them separately to meet their own ends.

The focus of the Guide is on the actual conduct of PIAs broken down by a number of Modules. The Modules are fairly non-specific so they can be adapted to the particular agency’s needs. An agency might want to engage in a full PIA for a planned project involving the large scale collection of potentially sensitive personal information. On the other hand, an agency might want to conduct a cursory check of particular privacy practices to ensure it is still protecting privacy effectively. The tools contained in the Guide can be adapted to these and other purposes.


Below we have set out a hypothetical example of how the Guide would assist an agency to conduct a PIA. An agency decides to start processing tax invoices and payments via the internet. An element of the proposed project is allowing users to have their billing information shared with linked agencies. The Agency conducts a formal PIA to make sure that privacy protections are built into the project from the start.

Using the Guide, it first checks whether the project involves handling personal information (Module A). Finding that it does, the agency then sketches the nature of the project (Module B). It maps the information flows, identifying who will collect information such as email addresses and bank account details, who it will be disclosed to and how it will be stored and accessed etc (Module C). The agency then conducts the privacy impact analysis to identify negative impacts and potential breaches of privacy law, for example, the disclosure of bank account details to a party outside the agency for a secondary purpose might be identified as a negative privacy impact and a breach of the Information Privacy Principles (Modules D and E). The agency might be guided by Module F in considering how the privacy impacts can be managed. Recommendations arising from the process might be that the privacy impacts are too significant for the project to proceed, or that significant safeguards involving informed consent and storage of the information will need to be implemented.

The final stages of the assessment involve consideration of how privacy impacts can be managed and making recommendations to the agency about how its privacy practices can be improved. The Guide suggests examples of recommendations that might be made, including ways that the agency could modify the project to improve privacy outcomes. Module F contains a useful list of matters that agencies can consider when formulating appropriate recommendations, such as balancing interests, ensuring minimum standards of privacy protection and delivering promises.

Tips for using conducting a PIA

As with any risk management tool, the effort expended in using the Guide will determine the quality of the recommendations at the end of the process. With this in mind here are four tips for conducting a PIA:

Documentation - prepare a brief of relevant documentation relating to the project being evaluated. Relevant documentation may include project planning material, relevant agency policies, contracts with subcontractors, memoranda or agreements with other agencies, and relevant guidelines published by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Having all relevant documentation together will make it quicker to answer the PIA questions. It will also make it easier to determine what information, if any, is missing.

Flow charts - spending the additional time to draw a visual representation of flows of personal information will assist you clarify what flows constitute "collection", "use" or "disclosure" of information. For example, in some projects there may be a number of different uses of information which will require separate analysis. A flow chart is a useful method of identifying these information flows.

Opportunity to identify other risks - the process of preparing a PIA may identify potential risks other than the protection of personal information. Issues such as freedom of information procedures, Archives Act 1983 (Cth) issues, contractual clauses or policy deficiencies may surface as a result of the PIA process. A system for recording these potential issues provides an opportunity to deal with associated risks.

Implementation - with the Guide's help, once the PIA is completed the most vital elements of improving privacy protection is the actual implementation of any recommendations developed. Agencies may use the Guide to work out what their privacy issues are, if any, and how to resolve them, but it is in the actual resolution of those issues that benefit will be derived from the PIA.


1 Privacy Impact Assessment Guide, Office of the Privacy Commissioner 2006, p11,

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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