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Student letter results in privacy breach investigation

23 February 2017

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has released a case note on its investigation of a complaint from a university student union president about publication in a student magazine of excerpts of a letter giving the president a formal warning.

The Commissioner found that disclosure of the information in the letter was in breach of Privacy Principle 11. This stipulates that personal information should not be disclosed for purposes other than those for which the information was obtained in the first place. While there are exceptions, it was found that none of these applied.

The complainant was given a written warning for neglecting to meet a number of her job's key performance indicators. The warning came in a formal letter from the vice president on behalf of the student executive.

Soon after, excerpts from the letter were published in a university magazine as part of a story about disfunction in the student union.

The case note says as the Privacy Act 1993 only applies to "agencies" it did not apply to the student magazine. Section 2 of the Act specifies that a news medium is not an agency when it is carrying out tasks in relation to its news activities. Publishing excerpts from the letter was related to the student magazine's news activities.

The investigation focused on the person who allegedly gave the letter to the student magazine. It found that the information was obtained between of their role as vice president. The letter's purpose was to inform the student president of her job performance.

"Disclosing that information to the student magazine was not directly connected to this purpose, and was therefore in breach of principle 11," the case note says.

It says releasing the letter caused significant harm to the complainant. Students sent her hate mail and she suffered from anxiety, headaches and panic attacks.

"We formed the opoinion that these outcomes met the threshold for sigificant humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings..

The case note says that while the Office usually tries to settle cases, in this instance the dysfunctional relationship presented a settlement. The case was referred to the Director of Human Rights Proceedings, who took action against the respondent. This resulted in an award by the Human Rights Review Tribunal of $18,000 to compensate the complainant for her humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to her feelings.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019