On 12 December 2011, the Australian Privacy Commissioner (the Commissioner) opened an own motion investigation in response to allegations that Telstra Corporation Limited (Telstra) had breached customer privacy by making its web-based customer management tool publicly available on its website. The tool is used to track orders for bundled products (the Visibility Tool).
The Commissioner received information which indicated that customers’ personal information was accessible online. The personal information included names, phone numbers, service holdings and order numbers, as well as a free text field where consultants could write a customer’s username and password, or email or online bill account reference.
The Commissioner’s investigation focused on whether Telstra’s handling of the personal information it held in the Visibility Tool was consistent with the National Privacy Principles (NPP) contained in Schedule 3 of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (the Act). These principles include requirements about when personal information may be disclosed (NPP 2), and what security measures must be in place to protect the personal information (NPP 4).
The Commissioner took the view that the incident amounted to an unauthorised disclosure of customers’ personal information by Telstra, and therefore breached NPP 2.
The Commissioner also concluded that at the time of the incident, Telstra did not have adequate security measures in place to protect the personal information it held in the Visibility Tool from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure, resulting in a breach of NPP 4.
On 9 December 2011, a participant on an internet and technology discussion forum posted comments on a thread stating that an internal database of Telstra, containing customer information, was accessible online. The comments alleged that anyone who accessed the Visibility Tool could conduct a search using the customer’s last name, account number, order ID or reference number.
At the time of the incident, the Visibility Tool could only be accessed by an individual who had the specific URL for the Visibility Tool either by:
- entering the URL in their browser window, or
- obtaining the URL by conducting a specific search on Google using a number that should not have been made publicly available, or
- entering the search ‘help Telstra bundles’.
When accessing the Visibility Tool, the details of 734,000 customers were accessible at the time of the incident.
Actions by Telstra
On becoming aware that personal customer information was available via the Internet, an Incident Response Team was created and worked to protect the security of customers’ personal information and to minimise customer inconvenience.
Telstra advised that upon receiving the information it:
- took steps to remove access to the Visibility Tool as soon as it was aware that it was publicly available
- disabled the platforms that required personal information for access, including the online billing and email platforms, until Telstra was able to confirm that these platforms were not affected
- contacted the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to alert them to the incident
- undertook an investigation, focusing on whether there had been an unauthorised disclosure of personal information and whether the overall security safeguards in place within Telstra were consistent with the principles of the Privacy Act
- reset the passwords of approximately 73,000 Telstra customers as a precaution
- ascertained that the information available on the Visibility Tool included customers’ names, phone numbers, service holdings and order numbers, as well as a free text field where consultants could write a customer’s username and password, email address or online bill account reference. The free text field in a very limited number of cases also included mobile phone numbers, unique passwords, date of birth, drivers licence number, passport number, credit card number (excluding expiry dates or CCV numbers) or Medicare number
- informed potentially affected customers by phone, SMS, email or direct mail. Customers were notified of the disclosure and the potential risk. Customers were also advised that Telstra would work with them to deal with the situation to the customer’s satisfaction. A direct hotline was also set up for customers to call with any questions or concerns.
Telstra undertook an investigation and prepared an incident report. The incident report revealed that a number of key events led to the public availability of the Visibility Tool including that:
- a series of errors occurred from the initial deployment of the Telstra Bundles Project to the roll-out of the Visibility Tool
- the first error was the incorrect categorisation of the project as one that did not involve the processing, storing or transferring of customer data. Therefore, a process with a strict set of security control and oversight processes was not put into place
- subsequent errors occurred from the time of the deployment of the Telstra Bundles Project (the Project) in March 2011 until December 2011. The errors included the failure of a single employee to report the external accessibility of the Visibility Tool once they were made aware of its accessibility
- between 26 July 2011 and 19 October 2011, the Visibility Tool was partially protected through the use of a pass through authentication mechanism, which meant that the Visibility Tool was accessible only to those who obtained the appropriate URL for the site from a secure Telstra website. In October 2011 a software restoration was undertaken which inadvertently restored incorrect software settings, removing the pass through authentication mechanism, resulting in the URL being made publicly available by December 2011.
In November 2011, Telstra was informed that the Visibility Tool was accessible externally and was not protected by the Telstra firewall. However, no action was taken to escalate this alert to the appropriate internal Telstra business areas. Telstra has identified two key causes of the incident:
- an incorrectly completed Compliance Questionnaire - an early failure by a project manager to correctly complete a compulsory internal questionnaire required to determine the necessary security profile of a new project relating to the recording of Telstra customer bundle orders
- failure to follow proper systems, processes and oversight - subsequent failures by the project team tasked with developing and implementing the Visibility Tool to raise relevant privacy and security risks outside the project team.
Telstra committed to the following remedial actions:
- an audit of all Telstra applications using technology based platforms that supported the Visibility Tool and that collect, store or use customers’ personal information
- revision of the Privacy Compliance Program, including reviewing training and compliance processes relating to customer data management, and reinforcing with staff the consequences of non-compliance with Telstra’s policies and procedures
- implementation of a new internal training program for using Telstra’s Enterprise Program Management Tool processes, including the completion of Compliance Questionnaires
- enhancement of the existing processes, including updated training material, a simplified risk register and templates that are easier to use
- establishment of a system where the Chief Privacy Officer is involved in the management of incidents concerning privacy. Where an incident involves a privacy risk, the Chief Privacy Officer will undertake a risk assessment and, where appropriate, notify the OAIC. This is consistent with the OAIC’s Data Breach Notification Guidelines, which encourage organisations to notify the affected individuals and the OAIC if there is a real risk of serious harm as a result of a data breach
- improvement of the Telstra employee privacy security training and updates to Telstra’s Information Security and Records Management course, deployed in February 2012
- updates, deployed on 16 December 2011, included in Telstra’s refresher privacy and security training modules
- implementation of a specific training program for all Telstra’s employees and contractors with access to customers’ credit card information, deployed by 1 March 2012.
Relevant provisions of the Privacy Act
Telstra is required to comply with the 10 National Privacy Principles (NPPs) contained in the Privacy Act, which regulate the way that organisations handle ‘personal information’. Personal information is information that identifies an individual or could reasonably identify an individual. The Privacy Act defines ‘personal information’ as information or an opinion (including information or an opinion forming part of a database), whether true or not, and whether recorded in a material form or not, about an individual whose identity is apparent, or can reasonably be ascertained, from the information or opinion.
The Commissioner’s investigation focused on whether the incident was an ‘unauthorised disclosure’ of personal information and therefore whether the handling of personal information under the Telstra Bundles Project was consistent with:
- NPP 2 (use and disclosure)-in particular NPP 2.1, which provides that an organisation must only use or disclose personal information for the primary purpose for which it was collected, unless one of a number of exceptions apply
- NPP 4 (data security)-in particular NPP 4.1, which requires organisations to take ‘reasonable steps’ to protect the personal information they hold from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.
Privacy Commissioner Findings
NPP 2.1 Use and Disclosure
In general terms an organisation discloses personal information when it releases information to others outside the organisation. The Commissioner’s investigation concluded that specific errors by Telstra staff led to the Visibility Tool being publicly accessible. The external accessibility of customers’ personal information was an unauthorised disclosure and therefore a breach of NPP 2.1.
The Commissioner found that the disclosure of customers’ personal information occurred on a large scale and over a substantial period of time. Overall, Telstra reset around 73,000 passwords of Telstra customers (the Visibility Tool contains 734,000 ‘Bundles’ customers) and initiated a customer contact strategy to inform customers who were potentially affected by phone, SMS, email or direct mail. The Visibility Tool had been accessible externally between 26 July 2011 and 19 October 2011. Later in October 2011, a software restoration was undertaken and it inadvertently restored incorrect software settings that meant that in December 2011, the Visibility Tool was once again available externally.
The disclosure of Telstra customers’ personal information was not a result of a one-off human error but rather a series of errors that revealed significant weaknesses in Telstra’s reporting, monitoring and accountability systems. The fact that a number of people were aware of the errors and did not raise them with higher management demonstrates that Telstra’s policies and procedures had not been followed on a number of occasions.
NPP 4.1 Data security
In order for an organisation to be compliant with NPP 4.1, it must take reasonable steps to protect the personal information it holds from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.
In assessing whether Telstra took reasonable steps to comply with NPP 4.1, the Commissioner reviewed the overall security safeguards put in place by Telstra prior to and following the incident.
Whether measures taken to secure personal information are considered to have been ‘reasonable steps’ will depend on the organisation’s particular circumstances. For example, the size of the organisation, how the organisation handles the personal information it holds, and the type of information that it holds will be relevant factors.
In deciding what security safeguards are reasonable to comply with its obligations under NPP 4.1, an organisation could consider a range of measures including:
- taking steps to identify security risks to personal information held by the organisation and developing policies and procedures that reduce identified risks to security
- training staff and management in security awareness, practices and procedures
- monitoring compliance with the security policies, periodic assessments of new security risks and the adequacy of existing security measures.
The Commissioner accepted that Telstra had existing policies and procedures in place that should have been followed and that, if followed, would have prevented the errors that led to this incident. However, in order to satisfy the requirements of NPP 4.1, the Commissioner emphasised that ‘reasonable steps’ must include both the documented policies and procedures, and behaviours consistent with those policies and procedures.
Policies and procedures in and of themselves do not demonstrate compliance with NPP 4.1 if it cannot be shown that organisations are acting on them. On this basis, the Commissioner found that Telstra did not have reasonable steps in place with regard to data security in the Visibility Tool in compliance with NPP 4.1.
Telstra’s remediation project
The Commissioner noted that Telstra took appropriate steps to investigate the incident, notify affected customers and contain the breach; and, at the time of the Commissioner’s investigation, was implementing a comprehensive review of its security systems. These steps aimed to mitigate the effects of the breach and ensure that no further unauthorised access occurred.
The Commissioner considers that in relation to the incident:
- Telstra disclosed customers’ personal information in breach of NPP 2.1
- Telstra was in breach of NPP 4.1 as it did not take reasonable steps to protect customers’ personal information from unauthorised access and disclosure.
The Commissioner acknowledges that on becoming aware of this incident Telstra acted immediately to restrict access to personal information, commenced an investigation into the incident and implemented a number of security and policy measures. These actions could be seen as reasonable steps to protect the personal information held by Telstra from unauthorised access.
The Commissioner decided to cease the OAIC’s own motion investigation upon reviewing information from Telstra about its remediation project. He found that the remediation steps that Telstra was taking put into place comprehensive data security systems, in compliance with the Act.
In ceasing his investigation into the matter, the Commissioner asked Telstra to provide him with a report on the progress of the remediation project by October 2012. He also asked Telstra to provide to him with a report on the completion of the remediation project by April 2013.
Should the OAIC receive an individual complaint concerning this matter, it will deal with it on its merits.
Acronyms and abbreviations
Commissioner — Privacy Commissioner
Cth — Commonwealth
OAIC — Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
Privacy Act — Privacy Act 1988
Telstra — Telstra Corporation Limited
 ‘Telstra Bundle requests’ refers to orders that include a range of Telstra fixed, broadband and pay TV products. The Telstra Bundles project was created to improve how such orders were recorded and tracked.
 Guidelines to the National Privacy Principles, p 23.
 Guidelines to the National Privacy Principles, 44.