AAB ruled that section 61 exemption was properly invoked by an academic institute which, in the public interest, disclosed to the news media personal data of its staff in defending the institute against false accusations with a view to protecting its public image.
Complainant alleged his employer of disclosing his sensitive information about a compensation claim to news reporters - matter arising out of an accusation made by the complainant against his employer - disclosure in response to the accusation and to defend the reputation of employer - public interest in balanced news reporting - DPP3 and section 61 exemption
The complainant was employed by an academic institute. After a suicide attempt by the complainant, the principal of the institute, in response to enquiries by newspaper reporters, disclosed certain information about the complainant relevant to the background of the case. The information was published in the newspaper. The complainant complained to the PCPD about the disclosure of his personal data.
Findings of the Privacy Commissioner
The PCPD conducted an investigation of the case. It was found that part of the information disclosed by the principal was based on his memory and understanding on the matter and not on any written record. Hence, the disclosure of that part of the information did not constitute disclosure of "personal data" within the meaning of the Ordinance, which must be "recorded" data. The remaining part of the information disclosed was based on employment records. Accordingly, its disclosure constituted disclosure of personal data of the complainant. Such information related to a previous suicide attempt of the complainant and previous work injuries of the complainant as a result of which the complainant had claimed employees' compensation. The principal claimed, however, that he had released such information to the newspaper reporters to defend the institute against accusations by the complainant's wife that the present suicide attempt by the complainant had been caused by the institute's mishandling of the complainant's compensation claims.
The PCPD formed the view that the disclosure of personal data by the institute to newspaper reporters in the case was exempted from the restrictions on the use (including disclosure) of personal data provided for in DPP 3 in Schedule 1 of the Ordinance by virtue of section 61(2). Section 61(2) provides that personal data are exempted from the provisions of DPP 3 in any case in which the use of the data consists of disclosing the data to a data user involved in news activity and such disclosure is made by a person who has reasonable grounds to believe (and reasonably believes) that the publishing or broadcasting is in the public interest. The disclosure by the principal of the institute of the relevant information to an organization undertaking news activities in order to defend the reputation of the institute in response to the accusations made by the complainant was accepted to be done for public interest in facilitating fair and balanced reporting. No contravention of DPP3 was found. Dissatisfied with the findings, the complainant appealed to the AAB.
AAB found that the personal data of the complainant which the principal of the institute had disclosed to newspaper reporters were so disclosed with the aim of presenting a complete answer to the enquiries, and of defending the institute against false accusations, thereby protecting its public image. As such, there were reasonable grounds for the principal to believe, and the principal did reasonably believe, that the publishing of the data was in the public interest. Therefore the exemption under section 61(2) of the Ordinance applied, and there was no contravention of the Ordinance on the part of either the institute or the principal.
The appeal was dismissed.