Judges' details revealed in web bungle

The private addresses and work histories of Victorian judges and magistrates were inadvertently posted on the internet last week.

Legal Ombudsman Kate Hamond raised the alarm on Friday after members of her office stumbled across the security and privacy breach on the Legal Practice Board's website.

She said a search by her staff identified the names, private addresses and work histories of 20 to 30 Supreme and Family Court judges, magistrates, solicitors and barristers. "I insisted that they take it off immediately," Ms Hamond said. "I was certainly very concerned. It was only luck that we spotted it quickly. If it had got into Google or Yahoo it could have been there forever."

Legal Practice Board chief executive Sue Walpole said a computer glitch was responsible for the information appearing on the site for 36 hours.

"As soon as we found out we pulled it of our own accord," Ms Walpole said.

"It was extremely unfortunate. The only critical information I don't have is how many hits the site got but I am confident there were not many and the Legal Ombudsman is the only person who has contacted me about it."

Ms Hamond said the Legal Practice Board had "a history of these sorts of incompetencies" and she had reported the incident to the Privacy Commissioner and the Justice Department. "Serious questions have to be asked about what happened," she said. "It needs to be investigated."

She said the personal details of lawyers must be protected to safeguard them from danger because they often worked in conflict situations with aggrieved people.

In 1980, Family Court judge David Opas was assassinated outside his Sydney home in front of his young family. Four years later, another Family Court judge was injured when a bomb exploded at his Sydney home.

Ms Walpole said the Legal Ombudsman had specifically complained about the personal details revealed about a Supreme Court judge, the Public Advocate, a magistrate, a prosecutor, ABC radio host Jon Faine and two of her staff.

She said she had a deep regard for the privacy of others, but the board's statutory duty was to protect consumers by maintaining a register of Victoria's 13,000 lawyers.

Her office had spent months updating the register, including replacing judges' private addresses with their court addresses, and it had kept the profession informed.

Ms Walpole said it appeared that a computer glitch had briefly undone much of their work by causing unamended information, possibly including private addresses, to appear on the website.

"I am still having the matter investigated but it appears that where some records were concerned old data was inadvertently uploaded," she said.

It is not known how many lawyers had their private addresses listed.

By law, Ms Walpole said, lawyers were supposed to update their personal details on the Legal Practice Board register.

Attorney-General Rob Hulls said he had received a verbal briefing on the matter and had sought a written one within 24 hours. "It is important that we get the balance right between improving public access to legal information and protecting the privacy of lawyers and judges," he said.

Privacy Commissioner Paul Chadwick has sought further information from the Legal Practice Board.

Mr Chadwick said his office had advised the board last month of the need to be careful with home addresses of all legal practitioners if it proceeded with plans to place online data from the register of legal practitioners.

"Putting any public register data online raises important privacy issues because the internet is very different from a leather-bound, paper-based register available for inspection in an office," he said. "Old technology had some in-built privacy safeguards. Digital data can be easily copied, searched, matched and linked to other data sets."

Source: The Age
By Fergus Shiel
Law Reporter
February 10, 2004




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