Tread carefully on privacy issues

Millions of private details are being swapped between government agencies, including names, birth dates, incomes, IRD numbers, citizenship details, travel plans, ACC claims, home addresses and phone numbers.

Those claims and details were made public yesterday in a media report following an investigation by The New Zealand Herald.

Private information is already being shared but the number of deals to share the private details of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders may increase by more than half. More than 30 new agreements between government agencies are being explored.

The move to add more lines to the matrix of data sharing and matching comes during a low ebb in public confidence in government information-handling, after several high-profile breaches.

New Zealanders are unaccustomed to feeling their private activities are being spied upon by government agencies, despite the feeling of distaste most citizens likely have of paying their taxes so others can implement benefit or tax fraud.

The high-profile case of former revenue minster Peter Dunne's email being accessed, a reporter's movements within Parliament being checked and the fallout among Parliamentary Services heads brought the matter to the public view this year.

Now, New Zealanders will need to get used to the idea of every move they make being recorded in some way.

Travellers overseas already have to put down their name, passport number, home address and contact details, including an email address.

Who needs those details, one can rightly ask. Surely, a passport number, and passing through security at airports at home and abroad, can suffice.

Information matching is the disclosure of personal information about an individual by one government agency to another.

There are currently 56 active programmes, some of which have been operating for 20 years. But the Government decided it needed to be able to set up such arrangements more easily, and altered information-sharing provisions in the Privacy Act.

Quite correctly, Labour Party leader David Cunliffe has drawn attention to the risks of increasing information sharing between Crown agencies, given almost 100,000 New Zealanders have had their personal details accidentally released under the current Government.

It will send a chill down the spines of many who have had their personal information mistakenly released knowing the Government is exploring new data sharing involving 32 agencies, he said.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff, whose office gave its approval to the new provisions, and will pay a vital watchdog role over them, said there were important reasons behind the change.

The recession had focused attention on how to conduct government business more efficiently. When drawing up information-sharing agreements, agencies must consult the commissioner.

The 32 potential agreements include areas such as dealing with offenders and sex offenders, restorative justice and the detection of serious crime - areas no-one is likely to argue against.

However, the more information kept by government departments, the greater the risk of private information being wrongly released.

Problems associated with the Earthquake Commission, Inland Revenue and ACC show the Government's IT systems are not up to scratch, in the view of many.

Recent polls show more than 60% of New Zealanders do not trust government departments to protect their personal details.

Many of those 60% will not be frauds or cheats. They will be New Zealanders wondering how the system became so complicated that someone needs to know of their very being.

Most New Zealanders go to work, pay their taxes, only claim what is rightfully theirs and make what contribution they can to society. A small minority is now bringing the web of government oversight to a formerly unthinkable level.

The Government needs to tread carefully on issues of privacy. All good intentions can be overridden by a desire from people in charge to push past rules and boundaries.

Innocent activities may be blown out of proportion.

At all times, New Zealanders must push back against unwarranted invasions into their privacy.


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