The Coalition Government found itself in hot water in March of 1997.

Having promised as part of an election campaign a year earlier to crack down on database marketing that was placing individuals' personal privacy at risk, Prime Minister John Howard chose March to step away from that commitment.

"The Commonwealth will not be implementing privacy legislation for the private sector," Howard said in a statement, citing compliance costs for businesses for the sudden change of mind.

And so it was three months later that Information Age attempted to work out if anything else existed that could stop private companies from profiting from the sale of Australians' personal information.

The article's take-outs weren't particularly promising. "Data huckstering appears legally acceptable in Australia," it noted.

In addition, the article stated, "Australia... is becoming isolated in its resolve to sidestep privacy regulation in the private sector.

"Many of Australia's neighbours have introduced comprehensive privacy protection for personal information."

Testing the limits

Underlining the importance of the debate was emerging business models that created privacy concerns.

Private investigators were setting up very early forms of crowdsourcing websites where people could nab themselves a $50 reward for becoming data bounty hunters.

One of the operators of such sites said they could not operate if privacy laws that applied to government were similarly applied to the private sector.

However, the article noted that even established players like the Fly Buys loyalty scheme could run afoul of personal privacy best practice as they tried to find ways to monetise the data reserves they held.

"The message for the private sector is that if it is not specifically legislated against, it is OK to continue to develop and exploit personally intrusive databases, data mining and privacy probes with little federal oversight, unless someone screams about it," the article concluded.

Years later, in an age where free services like Facebook and Twitter have proliferated, personal privacy remains a key talking point.

The mantra, 'If you're not paying for it, then you're the product', often does not balance with user expectations on how their privacy should be respected, and has been the impetus for a wave of so-called antitrust actions against big web players.

At the same time, big data and analytics is leading to big questions on how acceptable it is to crunch or match disparate data sets to build an overall profile of a particular person or their activity. Privacy, however, is shaping many of these types of discussions.

However, unlike in 1997, private companies can't get away with just about anything. Privacy breaches are now punished with fines and naming-and-shaming that should give pause to others before trying anything too risky with customer data.

And organisations must now deal with federal law – the Privacy Act – on issues such as whether they have the "consent" of customers to use data in particular ways.