Tony Abbott hacking and data protection offences

The story about the hacking of Tony Abbott’s travel and other personal details, after he foolishly posted a picture of a flight boarding pass on social media, is both amusing and salutary (salutary for Abbott, and, I would suggest, Qantas and any other airline which prints boarding passes with similar details). What is also interesting to consider, is whether, if this hacking had occurred in the UK, it might have constituted an offence under data protection law.

Under section 170(1)(a) and 170(1)(c) of the Data Protection Act 2018 it is an offence for a person knowingly or recklessly…to obtain or disclose personal data without the consent of the controller, and also an offence for a person knowingly or recklessly…after obtaining personal data, to retain it without the consent of the person who was the controller in relation to the personal data when it was obtained.

There is at least an argument that this would have been a knowing obtaining of personal data without the consent of the controller (whether that controller was Qantas, or Abbott himself).

There are defences to both of these where the person can prove that the obtaining, disclosure, retaining etc. was in the particular circumstances, justified as being in the public interest.

Also, and this may be engaged here, it is a defence if the person acted for journalistic purposes, with a view to the publication by a person of any journalistic, academic, artistic or literary material, and in the reasonable belief that in the particular circumstances the obtaining, disclosing, retaining etc. was justified as being in the public interest. One does not have to be a paid journalist, or journalist by trade, to rely on this defence.

Prosecution in both cases may only be brought by the Information Commissioner, or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The offences are triable either way, and punishable by an unlimited fine.

I write all this not to condemn the “hacker”, nor to condone Abbott. However, it is worth remembering that similar hacking, in the UK at least, is not without its risks.

The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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