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Telstra ordered to pay AU$18K over privacy breach

Telstra has been ordered to pay AU$18,000 and apologise to a family law judge after it failed to tell him that it had published his details in the White Pages directory online and in print.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has ordered Telstra to pay AU$18,000 and apologise to a judge after it failed to tell him it had published his details in the White Pages directory.

According to the OAIC, the unnamed judge — identified only as "DK" — contacted Telstra to have a phone line connected for an alarm system due to security concerns related to his work.

Telstra set up the phone line and published the complainant's name, address, and the number of the phone line in both the White Pages online and in print through its Sensis subsidiary.

However, in September last year, the complainant lodged a complaint with the OAIC against Telstra, claiming that it had improperly disclosed his personal information to the White Pages for publication without his knowledge or consent.

The OAIC determination (PDF), finalised on October 30, said that Telstra had "interfered with the complainant's privacy by failing to take reasonable steps to provide notice to the complainant that it would use and disclose his personal information for the purpose of publishing it in the White Pages, in breach of National Privacy Principle 1.3 of the Privacy Act 1988".

The document said that Telstra would have to apologise in writing to the complainant within four weeks, review its processes, review its Privacy Statement, and pay the complainant AU$18,000.

Telstra, meanwhile, has refused to concede that it had breached the complainant's privacy, according to the OAIC. However, the telco's conduct in relation to the issue had been "conciliatory", the OAIC said.

Telstra submitted that its publication of the complainant's personal information in the White Pages was required under under Clause 9 of the Carrier Licence Conditions (Telstra Corporation Limited) Declaration 1997, which is made under a section of the Telecommunications Act 1997.

Under this declaration, Telstra is required to produce and distribute an alphabetical public number directory that includes entries for all customers who are supplied with a standard telephone service, regardless of who provides them with that service. Telstra said that the service supplied to the complainant was a standard telephone service.

However, the complainant contended that the publication in the White Pages was not required or authorised by law, arguing that the licence condition is not a legal obligation.

Ultimately, Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim found that the complainant's concerns arising from the publication of his details warranted financial recompense.

"In awarding compensation, I am guided by the impact of the privacy breach on the complainant," said Pilgrim in the determination document. "His concerns for his and his partner's safety arising directly out of the privacy breach have led him to apply to move interstate away from family and friends. His application for transfer demonstrates the severity of the stress that the disclosure has caused the complainant.

"I accept that Telstra's failure to take reasonable steps to notify the complainant that his personal information would be published in the White Pages has caused the complainant significant distress and anxiety associated with legitimate fears for his and his partner's physical safety," he said.

The decision follows an AU$10,000 fine issued to Telstra in March, after the OAIC and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found that it had breached privacy laws after it inadvertently leaked the details of over 15,000 customers.