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What is personal information and how does it interact with the Freedom of Information Act?

Personal information is information that identifies or could reasonably identify an individual. The Privacy Act 1988 and the FOI Act define ‘personal information' in the same way:

Personal information means information or an opinion about an identifiable individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable:

  1. whether the information or opinion is true or not and
  2. whether the information or opinion is recorded in material form or not.

See s 4(1) of the FOI Act and Part 6 of the Guidelines.

Do the Privacy Act and FOI Act conflict in relation to the protection of personal information?

No. Personal information is protected from disclosure under the FOI Act where this would be unreasonable and contrary to the public interest. Where an agency decides to release personal information under the FOI Act (ie, where it is reasonable and in the public interest), the Privacy Act allows this under Australian Privacy Principle 6.2(b).

How should agencies ensure proof of identity for personal information requests?

An agency should apply its own procedures to satisfy itself of the FOI applicant's identity before giving them access to personal information. If the applicant could not show that it was their personal information, the agency or minister would treat the FOI access request as a request by a third party and the personal privacy conditional exemption would apply. See Part 3 of the Guidelines.

As no charge can be imposed for documents containing an applicant's personal information, does this include personal information about more than one person?

No. ‘Personal' only includes information about the applicant, and not a third party's personal information. The applicant may be charged for other information. See r 5 of the FOI (Charges) Regulations and Part 4 of the Guidelines.

How should charges be calculated if documents contain only a small amount of personal information and the rest is policy information?

If the personal information forms a small part of a document and it is likely that an agency or minister will expend extra time or resources in providing access to the entire document, it may be appropriate for the agency or minister to impose a charge for providing access to the portion of the document that does not contain personal information. Before doing so, the agency or minister should consult the applicant about narrowing the scope of the request and providing access without charge to the portion of the document that contains personal information. See Part 4 of the Guidelines.

Is information about a person's small business accepted as ‘personal information' for the purpose of charging?

No, not necessarily. However, information about a person's small business may be considered personal information if a person is identified or is reasonably identifiable from the information. The information may be private in nature or publicly known. It may be factual, descriptive or an opinion about that individual. See Part 4 of the Guidelines.

When a decision is made under FOI to amend a record, is it necessary to amend each entry of personal information that an agency holds?

No, not always. If there are a large number of historical records it is sufficient to amend the entry in a central database. Agencies should ensure that records that have not been amended clearly cross-refer to the correct information. See Part 7 of the Guidelines and Agency resource 3: Processing requests for amendment of annotation of personal records.

If documents that were released in response to an FOI request contain personal or business information, do they have to be published in the disclosure log?

No, if the publication of the personal or business information released in response to an FOI request would be unreasonable. See s 11C(1) of the FOI Act and Part 14 of the Guidelines.