Your email address and the myth of privacy

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Imagine you’ve noticed a proposal in your strata scheme to spend too much money on the wrong project or with a contractor you’ve heard overcharges and is unreliable.

Strata committee members aren’t listening and you need to get in touch with other owners in a hurry before the decision is made and set in stone.

Snail mail just isn’t going to do it. So you ask your strata manager for a list of owners’ email addresses, but they tell you that it’s their policy not to supply that information, based on the wishes of the majority of their clients or the mistaken belief that this is covered by Federal privacy laws.

Frustrating, huh? Your chances of organising the votes to stop the spending are evaporating.

Given the default levels of apathy in most strata schemes, email campaigns are the fastest and most efficient way of alerting other owners to a contentious issue.

On the other hand, how would you feel about your email address being made available to every other owner in your block? Perhaps you don’t want to be assailed by messages concerning issues about which you don’t really care?

But here’s the thing: your strata manager could be breaking the law by not handing over the email addresses.  And privacy laws probably don’t give them a get-out.

Any strata manager or self-managed scheme that emails owners, obviously has their addresses on record.  In fact, in NSW strata law demands that unit owners’ email addresses are registered on the strata roll.

And in most states, owners are legally entitled to inspect their strata records, with very few exceptions.

But privacy laws, which are Federal, are limited to corporations with an annual turnover of more than $3million, and where there isn’t another law that demands that you provide and share personal information.

Some very large strata managers say that they have turnovers of more than $3m, so they are covered by this. They’re not.

Yes, they have to abide by privacy laws that govern the way they deal with information given to them as part of THEIR data collection.  It almost certainly doesn’t cover information that they manage on behalf of other corporations (like strata schemes). 

In any case, there are other laws that require information be handed over, namely the strata laws of the various states that demand owners corporation information be provided by and made available to strata owners.

So, on two counts, Federal privacy laws don’t apply to most strata schemes. Admittedly there are a few ginormous complexes of over 500 units that may have a turnover of $3m plus – but the “other laws” exemption would still apply.

There are various senior court and Tribunal rulings around that support the idea that the purpose of providing contact details is so that strata owners can contact each other.

Earlier this year a Flatchatter won an appeal in the WA Supreme Court against a Tribunal decision that she was only allowed to see other owners’ email addresses provided she didn’t use them to contact owners.

This is a dilemma for strata managers.  They want to save the cost, not to mention the environmental carnage, of sending out reams of paper for every notice, bill, agenda and meeting minutes.

But they know that many owners don’t want their email addresses to be available to other owners.

At least one popular strata management software program has a button that obscures email addresses, to keep them from prying eyes, regardless of the viewers’ legal entitlement to see them.

Meanwhile, there’s a push underway to have email addresses excluded from strata roll inspections, under the upcoming reviews of NSW strata laws.

But there’s another side of the “privacy” coin.  Maybe your strata committee doesn’t want disgruntled owners stirring each other up with email campaigns.

Perhaps they want to be the only ones able to send out “newsletters”, pushing their opinions to the exclusion of everyone else’s.

However, as a frequent recipient of angry emails, I can understand why the average owner would want to protect themselves from that often emotional and occasionally upsetting intrusion to their lives.

But I can also see the need for a getting in touch with other owners quickly and efficiently when there is an issue that could otherwise slip under the radar. 

It shouldn’t be that big a deal for those who don’t want to be electronically harangued.  You can block messages from selected senders very easily, so you need never know you’ve been contacted more than once.

And our laws could allow email addresses to be excluded from strata records, provided an alternative – like an electronic bulletin board, for instance – was made freely available to owners.

That way, you would get an email telling you there was a message from another owner online and what the subject matter headline was, and you could choose what to read and from whom.

It would also allow a filter to be imposed on foul language, threats and unreasonable demands, but at least it would allow strata owners to connect with each other semi-directly.

Communication is the key to building communities and exercising our democratic rights … which may explain why the autocrats and control freaks who walk among us, don’t like too much of it.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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