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Johnston, Anna --- "Reforming privacy laws to protect against digital harms" [2021] ANZCompuLawJl 11; (2021) 93 Computers & Law 38

Reforming privacy laws to protect against digital harms

Anna Johnston [1]

22 October 2020


Most data protection and privacy laws turn on the identifiability of an individual as the threshold criteria for when data subjects will need legal protection. They rest on an assumption that privacy harms can only befall an individual who can be identified. However that assumption is increasingly being challenged by the realities of the digital economy. I argue that privacy harms can also arise from individuation: the ability to distinguish one individual from others, even if that individual’s ‘identity’ is not known.

From the digital breadcrumbs we leave behind in the form of geolocation data shed from our mobile devices, to the patterns of behaviour we exhibit online as we browse, click, comment, shop, share and ‘like’, we can be tracked. Tracked; then profiled; and finally targeted ... all without the party doing the tracking, profiling or targeting needing to know ‘who’ we are.

Data protection and privacy laws globally need updating, and emerging laws need careful drafting, in order to reflect this reality of the digital environment, and protect people from digital harms. I propose in this article a model for reform.

Why definitions matter

Whether or not any particular piece of data meets the definition of ‘personal data’ is a threshold legal issue for the operation of most privacy and data protection laws (collectively, ‘data privacy laws’ for the purposes of this paper) around the world. The definition of ‘personal data’ (or its equivalents such as ‘personal information’) determines the boundaries of what is regulated, and what is protected, by the privacy principles and data subject rights which follow.[2]

Privacy principles, tempered by exceptions for some scenarios, set out obligations on regulated entities for the handling of personal data, and data subject rights create actionable rights for individuals in relation to the personal data held about them. Data that is not ‘personal data’ is not subject to the same obligations, or the same protections – even if its collection or use is capable of doing harm to an individual.

Under most data privacy laws, if data does not meet the threshold definition of ‘personal data’, a dataset can be released as open data, sold to other organisations, or used for a new purpose such as predictive analytics or to train a machine learning system, without legal limits or protections in relation to privacy.

Understanding the scope of what is meant by ‘personal data’ – and ensuring that that definition remains fit for purpose – is therefore a critical endeavour in privacy jurisprudence.

The definition of personal data (and its equivalents) are in need of a radical re-think and re-design, to ensure they can protect against privacy harms.

Are data privacy laws fit for purpose?

Data privacy laws, including the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), have not kept up with rapidly evolving technological advances, and their implications for our privacy – our autonomy, our self-determination and our solitude, our freedom of speech and freedom of association, and the freedom to live without discrimination or fear.

The key problem is that almost all data privacy laws only offer legal protection to individuals who are ‘identifiable’.

For example, the Australian Privacy Act turns on the definition of ‘personal information’, which is:

“information or an opinion about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable:

(a) whether the information or opinion is true or not; and

(b) whether the information or opinion is recorded in a material form or not” (emphasis added).[3]

New Zealand,[4] Canada,[5] the United States[6] and South Africa[7] also have privacy laws applying to ‘personal information’, drafted with a similar focus on the identifiability of the information.

European privacy law uses the term “personal data”. Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), this means:

“any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person ("data subject"); an identifiable person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that person” (emphasis added).[8]

Other jurisdictions which use the phrase ‘personal data’ and turn on the notion of identifiability include Singapore,[9] Hong Kong,[10] Brazil,[11] and the Council of Europe’s Convention 108+.[12]

The commonality between these different laws, jurisdictions and legal definitions is that if no individual is identifiable from a set of data, then the relevant privacy principles (or other legal obligations, however expressed) simply won’t apply. If no individual can be identified from a dataset, then the dataset can be released as open data, sold to other organisations, or used for a new purpose such as data analytics, without breaching privacy law.

Each of these laws rest on an assumption that privacy harms can only befall an individual who can be identified. That assumption is increasingly being challenged by the realities of the digital economy.

The challenges posed to the effective reach of data privacy laws come from many different directions: new technologies, new interpretations arising from case law, the increasing risks of re-identification, exponential growth in computing power, advances in fields like data analytics and cryptography, the phenomenon of data breaches, the influence of global debates, and new directions in statute law internationally.


By linking a device to behaviour such as searches, queries, posts, browsing sites and purchases, the party doing the tracking can start to profile individuals, drawing inferences about their interests and preferences, behaviour and budget, and divide them into segments accordingly. The individual presumed to be the user of the device can then be targeted to receive a particular ad, offered personalised content or recommendations, sent political messaging, or subjected to an automated decision such as differential pricing.

This paper uses the word individuation to refer to the ability to disambiguate or ‘single out’ a person in the crowd, such that they could, at an individual level, be tracked, profiled, targeted, contacted, or subject to a decision or action which impacts upon them – even if that individual’s ‘identity’ is not known (or knowable).[13]

Individuation is the technique used in online behavioural advertising; advertisers don’t need to know who any particular consumer is, but if they know that the user of a particular device has a certain collection of attributes, they can target or address their message to the user of that device accordingly.

The objective of online behavioural advertising is, like any advertising, to predict purchasing interests, and drive purchasing decisions. Online, however, the repercussions are much greater, because of the degree to which advertising – and indeed, the very content users are shown – has become ‘personalised’. Personalisation means decisions are made about who sees what, and equally what will be withheld from whom.

By allowing exclusion, digital platforms also allow discrimination. Facebook has been caught allowing advertisers to target – and exclude – people on the basis of their ‘racial affinity’, amongst other social, demographic, racial and religious characteristics.[14] For example, a landlord with an advertisement for rental housing could prevent people profiled as ‘single mothers’ from ever seeing their ad; an employer could prevent people identifying as Jewish from seeing a job ad; or a bank could prevent people categorised as ‘liking African American content’ from seeing an ad for a home loan.[15]

Existing patterns of social exclusion, economic inequality, prejudice and discrimination are further entrenched by micro-targeted advertising, which is hidden from public view and regulatory scrutiny. Preying on vulnerable individuals which could lead to physical, financial or social harm is also a risk of micro-targeting. For example a pharmaceutical company selling addictive opioid-based pain medication used Google’s search terms data to target people with chronic pain, promoting ads of escalating intensity across multiple sites, despite laws prohibiting the advertising direct to consumers of prescription medication.[16] It was also revealed in 2017 that Australian Facebook executives were promoting to advertisers their ability to target psychologically vulnerable teenagers.[17]

‘Personalisation’ can lead to price discrimination, like pricing based on an airline knowing this user has searched for a quote before; or market exclusion, like insurance products only being advertised to users already profiled as ‘low risk’, based on their online activities.[18] Micro-targeting can also be used to manipulate behaviour, such as voting intentions.[19]

The activities described above hold the potential to impact on individuals’ autonomy, by narrowing or altering their market or life choices. Philosophy professor Michael Lynch has said that “taking you out of the decision-making equation” matters because “autonomy enables us to shape our own decisions and make ones that are in line with our deepest preferences and convictions. Autonomy lies at the heart of our humanity”.[20]

A person does not need to be identified in order for their autonomy to be undermined or their dignity to be damaged.

Much effort is expended by advertisers and others wishing to track people’s movements and behaviours, whether offline or online, in convincing privacy regulators and consumers that their data is not identifying, and that therefore there is no cause for alarm. Whether in double-blind data matching models or the use of homomorphic encryption to compare data from multiple different sources (the sharing of which would be prohibited if the data was ‘identifiable’), the current obsession is how to avoid identifying anybody, such that the activity can proceed unregulated by data privacy laws. In fact the real question both companies and governments should be asking is how to avoid harming anybody.

Security and privacy academic and writer Bruce Schneier has argued that laws concerned with identifiability as the key element are too limiting in their treatment of potential harm:

“most of the time, it doesn’t matter if identification isn’t tied to a real name. What’s important is that we can be consistently identified over time. We might be completely anonymous in a system that uses unique cookies to track us as we browse the internet, but the same process of correlation and discrimination still occurs. It’s the same with faces; we can be tracked as we move around a store or shopping mall, even if that tracking isn’t tied to a specific name.”[21]

If the end result of an activity is that an individual can be individuated from a dataset, such that they could, at an individual level, be tracked, profiled, targeted, contacted, or subject to a decision or action which impacts upon them, that is a privacy harm which may need protecting against. (Whether or not any particular conduct should be then prevented by the application of data privacy laws will depend on the context; for example an intervention for fraud prevention or crime detection is a different proposition to online behavioural advertising. It is within the more detailed privacy principles that each data privacy law defines the allowable purposes for the collection, use or disclosure of personal data).

In the digital environment, ‘not identified’ is no longer an effective proxy for ‘will suffer no privacy harm’. I propose that individuation should be anticipated by, and explicitly built into, data privacy laws as well.

A new definition is needed

Some statutes and other international instruments drafted since the GDPR have shifted towards more explicitly incorporating the concept of individuation, moving beyond just identifiability as the essential threshold element, to also incorporate notions such as data which can be used to reflect, recognise, contact or locate an individual.

Examples are:

• The 2017 Information Security Standard in China, which fleshes out the expectations of how the 2016 Cybersecurity Law applies in practice: in addition to taking a “capacity to identify’ approach to its threshold definition, the Standard also incorporates data which ‘can reflect the activities of a natural person” (emphasis added). Privacy academic Professor Graham Greenleaf and IP lawyer Scott Livingston suggest that the effect is to regulate data “which gives the organisation the capacity to interact with a person on an individuated basis” using data which does not necessarily enable the data subject to be identifiable.[22]

• The 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA) expressly includes, within its definition of personal information, data which is “capable of being associated with, or could reasonably be linked, directly or indirectly, with a particular consumer or household”;[23] and includes within its definition of ‘unique identifier’: “a persistent identifier that can be used to recognize a consumer, a family, or a device that is linked to a consumer or family, over time and across different services, including, but not limited to, a device identifier” (emphasis added).[24]

• The 2019 Nigerian data protection regulation explicitly defines ‘identifiable information’ to include “information that can be used on its own or with other information to identify, contact, or locate a single person, or to identify an individual in a context” within its definition of ‘personal data’ (emphasis added).[25]

• The 2019 international standard in Privacy Information Management, ISO 27701, incorporates data which could be “directly or indirectly linked to an individual, regardless of whether the individual can be identified, within its definition of ‘personally identifiable information’ (emphasis added).[26]

Proposed new definition

So as to enable clarity and consistency in the application of data privacy law, and to protect against the potential privacy harms enabled by individuation, I propose that data privacy laws should be drafted or reformed to incorporate an expansive definition for the word ‘identifiable’, or explicitly add an alternative to identifiability.

I propose ensuring that the definition of ‘personal data’ (or its equivalent) incorporates both identifiability and individuation.

For example, ‘personal data’ could be defined as meaning:

information or an opinion about or relating to an individual who is

(i) identified or identifiable; or

(ii) able to be discerned or recognised as an individual distinct from others, regardless of whether their identity can be ascertained or verified.

I further suggest that the second element (“able to be discerned or recognised as an individual distinct from others”) should then be defined as including:

if the individual, or a device linked to the individual, could (whether online or offline) be surveilled, tracked or monitored; or located, contacted or targeted; or profiled in order to be subjected to any action, decision or intervention including the provision or withholding of information, content, advertisements or offers; or linked to other data which is about or relates to the individual.

This proposal aims to further explicate the notion of identifiability by individuation, by going to the heart of the types of privacy harms which can occur even when the precise ‘identity’ of an individual is unknown by the perpetrator of the harm. Mentioning decisions in relation to the provision or withholding of information is intended to capture the curation and delivery of personalised content such as ads, price offers, news feeds, recommendations for related content, etc. Further, the definition should cover decisions to exclude people from seeing certain content as much as it covers decisions to target or include people: e.g. a decision not to show a particular job ad to people outside a certain age bracket, or who identify as (or who have been inferred as belonging to) a particular ethnicity or religion.

This proposed additional layer to the test for identifiability also aims to ensure that the scope of data privacy regulation does not over-reach into technologies which do not pose risks of privacy harms, such as the use of sessional or load-balancing cookies which are necessary to make a website work, but which do not then continue to track the user.

The result of such a reform would be that the act of placing a tracking cookie on a person’s connected device, or using similar technology such as device fingerprinting, and then collecting data about that person’s online behaviour in a way which distinguished them from other individuals, in order to profile and then target that person (for example, in order to serve up an advertisement, or to determine what offers or pricing to show that person) will constitute the handling of personal data, such that the privacy principles apply to that conduct, notwithstanding that the advertiser and online ad broker could each claim not to know (or even be able to find out) ‘the identity’ of the person.

By more explicitly embedding the concept of individuation within the core definitional element of ‘identifiability’, data privacy laws can evolve in the same direction as other recent privacy instruments such as the CCPA and ISO 27701.


In this paper I have argued that in order to offer protection from privacy harms, data privacy laws need to recognise that in a digital environment, ‘not identifiable’ is no longer an effective proxy for ‘will suffer no privacy harm’. Data privacy laws must anticipate the harms that can arise via individuation, or ‘singling out’ without identification, as well.

I propose the word individuation to refer to the ability to disambiguate or ‘single out’ a person in the crowd, such that they could, at an individual level, be tracked, profiled, targeted, contacted, or subject to a decision or action which impacts upon them – even if that individual’s ‘identity’ is not known (or knowable).

By more explicitly embedding the concept of individuation within the definition of ‘personal data’, data privacy laws around the world can be modernised to reflect the reality of our digital lives, and to protect against digital harms impacting on privacy and autonomy, such as social and market exclusion, discrimination, and manipulation of prices, emotions, and voting intentions, as well as tracking which can facilitate physical harms.

[1] Anna Johnston, BA, LLB (Hons I), Grad Dip Leg Prac, Grad Cert Mgmt, MPP (Hons). Anna is the Principal of Salinger Privacy, a privacy consulting and training firm based in Sydney, Australia.

With thanks to Graham Greenleaf, Professor of Law & Information Systems, University of NSW, Australia who reviewed and commented on an earlier draft of this paper. Any mistakes are the author’s own.

[2] I do note some exceptions, such as the European ePrivacy Directive which is not limited in its scope to ‘personal data’; and some Asian laws such as Japan’s which can apply obligations to de-identified data as well as identifiable data.

[3] Section 6 of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth).

[4] Section 2 of the Privacy Act 1993 (NZ) defines personal information as “information about an identifiable individual”.

[5] Section 2(1) of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act 2000 (Canada), which regulates the private sector, defines personal information as “information about an identifiable individual”. Section 3 of the Privacy Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. P-21) (Canada), which regulates the federal public sector, defines personal information as “any identifying number, symbol or other particular assigned to the individual”.

[6] The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (United States) defines personal information as “individually identifiable information about an individual collected online”; see s.312.2, Part 312 of Title 16: Commercial Practices in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.

[7] The definition of personal information in the Protection of Personal Information Act [No 4 of 2013] (South Africa) is “information relating to an identifiable, natural, living person”.

[8] Article 4, General Data Protection Regulation, Regulation 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council

[9] Section 2 of the Personal Data Protection Act 2012 (Singapore) defines “personal data” as “data, whether true or not, about an individual who can be identified (a) from that data; or (b) from that data and other information to which the organisation has or is likely to have access”.

[10] Section 2 of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance (Cap. 486), 1995 (Hong Kong) defines personal data “any data (a) relating directly or indirectly to a living individual; (b) from which it is practicable for the identity of the individual to be directly or indirectly ascertained...”

[11] Article 5 of the General Data Protection Law (Law No. 13,709/2018) (Brazil) defines personal data as “information regarding an identified or identifiable natural person”.

[12] Article 2 of the Council of Europe’s Convention 108 defines personal data as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable individual”.

[13] Anna Johnston, “Individuation – Re-thinking the Scope of Privacy Laws”, Salinger Privacy Blog (Blog Post, 30 August 2016) .

[14] Julia Angwin, Ariana Tobin and Madeleine Varner, “Facebook (Still) Letting Housing Advertisers Exclude Users by Race”, ProPublica (17 November 2017_ .

[15] Alex Hern, “Facebook Lets Advertisers Target Users Based on Sensitive Interests”, The Guardian (16 May 2018) .

[16] Alison Branley, ‘Google Search Data Used by Pharma Giant to Bombard Users with Ads for Addictive Opioids’, ABC News (13 July 2019) .

[17] Nitasha Tiku, ‘Get Ready for the Next Big Privacy Backlash Against Facebook’, Wired (21 May 2017) .

[18] Rafi Mohammed, “How Retailers Use Personalized Prices to Test What You’re Willing to Pay”, Harvard Business Review (20 October 2017) .

[19] Luke Dormehl, “Will Your Computer Tell You How to Vote?”, Politico Magazine, 25 November 2014 .

[20] Michael Lynch, “Why does our privacy really matter?”, Christian Science Monitor, 22 April 2016 .

[21] Bruce Schneier, “We’re banning facial recognition. We’re missing the point”, New York Times, 20 January 2020

[22] Greenleaf & Livingston, ‘China’s Personal Information Standard: The Long March to a Privacy Law’ (2017) 150 Privacy Laws & Business International Report, pp. 25‐28

[23] CCPA section 1798.140(o)(1).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Data Protection Regulation 2019 (Nigeria)

[26] ISO/IEC 27701:2019

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