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Source: Privacy Commissioner

A farmer complained to our office after a power company mistakenly shared his address details with his estranged ex-partner. 

The man had advised the company that he was shifting to a new farm in order to avoid his ex-partner, who had a history of violent threats and harassment against him. He had previously issued a trespass notice against her, which she had repeatedly breached.

He expressly requested that the power company send his bills to a new email address, which his ex-partner did not have access to. Later the company mistakenly sent a bill containing his new physical address details to his old email. His ex-partner saw the man’s address and a soon after began to drive by his new property and leave threatening letters in his mailbox.

The power company apologised to the man, stating it was a combination of both human and system error. They outlined the steps they intended to take to remedy the error and further committed to reviewing and improving their systems so such a mistake would not occur again. They offered him $6,800 compensation, and a reimbursement of his account arrears amounting to several thousand dollars bringing the total compensation package to around $10,000.

After seeking legal advice, the man felt this amount was insufficient for the harm he had suffered and contacted our office.

Privacy Act

The man’s complaints raised issued under principles 5,8, and 11 of the Privacy Act.

Principle 5 requires that an agency shall ensure the personal information it holds is protected by security safeguards as are reasonable in the circumstances against loss, access, use, modification, disclosure or misuse.

Principle 8 provides that an agency shall not use the personal information it holds without taking such steps as are reasonable in the circumstances to ensure the information is accurate, up to date, complete, relevant and not misleading.

Principle 11 sets out that an agency shall not disclose the personal information it holds unless it believes on reasonable grounds that one of the exceptions listed in principle 11 applies.

Our investigation

We contacted the power company who admitted that they had breached the man’s privacy. They acknowledged their breaches of Principles 8 and 11 but did not believe they had breached Principle 5. They argued they did have adequate safeguards to protect customer’s data in place but stated that no system is 100% failsafe.

They explained the circumstances that had led to the breach occurring and offered to make a slight increase to their offer of compensation. We put the offer to the complainant, who rejected it.

Mediation

After corresponding with both parties, it was eventually agreed that OPC would facilitate a teleconference mediation in order to try to come to a settlement that satisfied all concerned.

We explained how the teleconference would proceed and emphasised this was an opportunity to talk. We then sat in on the phone call and facilitated the negotiations between parties. The farmer explained that after his ex-partner had found out his new address, he had to uproot and move to a new farm, at significant personal expense. He wished to be reimbursed for those costs and wanted a cash payment to compensate him and his new partner for the emotional harm the incident had caused.

After some further negotiation, the final figure agreed upon was a $24,000 payment in addition to the $10,000 package that was initially offered.

A settlement agreement was drawn up and both parties signed. The payment was made to the man and no further action was taken. 

MIL OSI