Australia: When is information about an individual - an update on the meaning of personal information for privacy compliance

The Full Bench of the Federal Court has recently provided some guidance on the meaning of the term 'personal information', which is a key concept under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). In a unanimous decision,1 the Full Bench upheld an Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) decision that found against the Privacy Commissioner, supporting Telstra's position to withhold certain mobile network data from a customer. The Federal Court decision focuses on how to determine whether information is 'about' an individual.


In June 2013, Ben Grubb, a Fairfax journalist, made a request under the Privacy Act for access to "all the metadata information" held by Telstra "about (his) mobile phone service".

This request was made under the former National Privacy Principles (which have since been replaced by the Australian Privacy Principles, effective from March 2014) that required organisations that are subject to the Privacy Act to provide individuals who request access to personal information about them that is held by the organisation with a copy of that personal information. The definition of 'personal information' in the pre-2014 version of the Privacy Act that was the subject of this decision is somewhat different to the equivalent definition in the current version of the Privacy Act, but both definitions include as a key requirement that the information or opinion must be "about an individual" in order to be considered personal information.

In response to his request, Telstra provided Mr Grubb with a range of data (including outgoing calls, SMS and MMS and other billing data relating to his mobile phone service). However, Telstra declined to provide other types of data to Mr Grubb (including in relation to incoming calls, SMS and MMS and other network data retained by Telstra in relation to communications passing through its mobile network) on the basis that such information was not personal information or would unreasonably interfere in the privacy of other individuals. Mr Grubb lodged a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner in relation to Telstra's failure to provide some of this information to him. The Privacy Commissioner ultimately ordered Telstra to release this information to Mr Grubb. Telstra objected and lodged an appeal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

The AAT found in favour of Telstra,2 stating that network data used by Telstra to connect Mr Grubb's mobile phone service was not about Mr Grubb, even if it was generated by his mobile phone. Instead, the AAT considered that the information was about the network used to convey the data and as such, it did not meet the threshold required to be personal information. The Privacy Commissioner appealed the AAT's decision to the Federal Court, arguing amongst other things, that any data held by an organisation that can be used to identify an individual is necessarily about that person and therefore should be considered personal information.

What did the Federal Court decide?

The Full Bench of the Federal Court upheld the AAT's approach to defining 'personal information'. The Court rejected the Privacy Commissioner's argument, finding that the requirement that the information be 'about a person' could not be ignored. A key finding of the Court was that there is a "need for the individual to be a subject matter of the information or opinion" in order for that data to be considered to be personal information. The Court also noted that information can have multiple subject matters and that information that is not about an individual by itself can become information about an individual when that information is combined with other information.

Unfortunately, the decision does not provide any more substantive guidance on what types of data would typically be considered personal information. Beyond providing some brief examples that the colour of an individual's phone or their network type is not information about an individual, the Federal Court did not consider whether mobile network-related information, including IP addresses, URLs of websites visited or tower locations of incoming calls, would be considered to be personal information.

What you need to know

Being able to determine whether information is personal information is a critical threshold issue for privacy compliance, as the Privacy Act only applies to personal information that is held by an organisation. Information that does not fit within the meaning of personal information is not subject to the requirements of the Privacy Act in relation to the collection, storage, use and disclosure of personal information.

While this decision relates to a previous version of the Privacy Act, we consider that it would be equally applicable to the definition of personal information as found in the current Privacy Act. In essence, this decision means that the meaning of personal information is slightly narrower than might previously have been considered. The statement by the Federal Court that the individual is only required to be a subject matter (and implicitly, not the sole subject matter) of the information or opinion means that organisations should be cautious in relying on this decision as narrowing the scope of their privacy obligations. In practice, while this decision may be of some academic interest, we do not consider that it has resulted in a substantive shift in the privacy law landscape.


1 Privacy Commissioner v Telstra Corporation Ltd [2017] FCAFC 4.
2 Telstra Corporation Ltd v Privacy Commissioner [2015] AATA 991.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Bartier Perry
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Bartier Perry
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions