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US surveillance program

12 June 2013

Statement from Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim

Reports on the surveillance of the communications and online activity of citizens by US intelligence agencies have raised a number of questions, including what this means for the privacy of individuals.

Privacy is a fundamental human right, recognised in international law and protected under Australian laws such as the federal Privacy Act and telecommunications laws. However, the right to privacy is not absolute – it must be balanced against other important rights and ideals, such as freedom of expression and national security.

In Australia, the federal Privacy Act and telecommunications laws recognise this and include a number of exemptions and exceptions for intelligence and law enforcement agencies and their activities. For example, the Privacy Act includes limited exceptions that allow government agencies and private sector organisations covered by the Act to use and disclose personal information for the enforcement of criminal laws, or where the use or disclosure is required or authorised by or under Australian law.

The Privacy Act can extend to an act or practice that occurs outside Australia in certain circumstances. However, the Act also provides that an act or practice of an organisation done outside Australia does not breach the Privacy Act if it is required by an overseas law. Further, the Privacy Act will generally not cover the acts and practices of overseas government agencies.


Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes privacy as a human right.