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ANU quietly asks Golden Key to ‘purge’ shared student records

Tom Joyner reports

The Australian National University has quietly asked a private honours society operating on its campus to “purge” the personal information of its students that it secretly handed over in a potential breach of federal laws.

ANU made the request to the Golden Key International Honours Society after an Honi Soit investigation last month revealed the university had been sharing the information with Golden Key without students’ consent.

In an email response to a privacy complaint lodged by fourth-year ANU student Benjamin Roberts, seen by Honi Soit, an ANU privacy officer said they were “looking into recently raised issues surrounding the matter of Golden Key”.

“So far as you are currently concerned, I can report that Golden Key have been asked to purge ANU addresses held by them, other than those who have joined” the email read, adding that the university was investigating the matter and took students’ privacy seriously.

A spokesperson for ANU refused to provide further comment.  

Golden Key, which has been operational on ANU’s campus since 1995, claims to provide students in the top 15 per cent of their cohort with the opportunity for networking, scholarships and conferences for a $100 joining fee. Membership to the society is on an invite-only basis.

The names, addresses and other contact information of ANU students were used by Golden Key to recruit new members via letters sent out on the university’s official stationery and signed by Pro Vice-Chancellor Richard Baker. ANU has previously denied an ‘official’ relationship with Golden Key.

But students who joined the society told Honi it did not meet their expectations and they instead were only sent marketing emails on behalf of Golden Key’s corporate sponsors.

It doesn’t fill me with a huge amount of confidence,” Roberts said. “I’d be seriously surprised if it wasn’t a breach of the Privacy Act, and it’s certainly a breach of ANU’s privacy policy as well.”

The computer science student said the breach had implications for his privacy beyond just Golden Key. “If they can [request student information], who else can, and how do I know who has access to my information beyond the ANU?”

Under the Privacy Act, ANU can only use student’s personal information for the purpose for which it was collected, presumably to enroll students to undertake study.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner said organisations covered under the Privacy Act, including ANU, should be transparent about under what circumstances personal information will be disclosed.

“Individuals should be notified and given the opportunity to provide consent or opt out if a significant change to the use of their personal information is proposed,” the spokesperson said.

“I was surprised. I thought any university would have to be terribly careful about giving out any information,” said privacy law expert and Sydney University Law School professor Barbara McDonald.

“Quite apart from being in breach of the Australian Privacy Principles, they could be in breach of confidence which is a common law right.”

Several current and former ANU academic staff have been directly involved with Golden Key while also employed at the university, including senior lecturer Vinh Lu, adjunct associate professor Selwyn Cornish, and former Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb.

Golden Key’s Sydney-based director Joshua Ang has repeatedly denied there was any commercial relationship between Golden Key and the ANU, and said instead the relationship was “in-kind”. He has been contacted for comment.