Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Privacy concerns legit in tell-all web age

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People have filled out surveys only to have their details sold on. Photo / Kenny Rodger
People have filled out surveys only to have their details sold on. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Old fogeys do have a point when they say that many people are too free with their personal information, writes Brian Rudman.

There are times when the right to privacy seems to be a lost cause. Defeated not so much by Big Brother, but by the sheer stupidity of those it was supposed to protect.

If you don't want your valuables stolen from your home, you don't leave all the doors and windows open when you go out, leaving a big sign at the front gate saying "back in four hours". You lock up.

But when it comes to personal information, growing numbers seem happy to leave it all hanging out. Literally so, in the case of US congressman Anthony Weiner. This 46-year-old New York politician sent grubby pictures of his "package" to his 21-year-old electronic female penpal, and somehow thought they wouldn't eventually get back to his wife and his constituents, to say nothing of every other one of us global villagers.

Closer to home, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff has taken New Zealand Post to task for breaching the privacy of thousands of people, by selling survey data it collected on to marketing companies.

The state-owned enterprise sent out a questionnaire to 800,000 customers, offering the chance to win cash and travel vouchers and other prizes in return for opening up on a huge range of topics of varying degrees of intimacy. There were more questions than a census form, 57 multi-choice queries in all, seeking name, address, mortgage rate, credit card limit, partner's income, bath night - well not the last one, but you get the picture.

This riveting information was then hocked off to anyone willing to pay. The privacy tzar is upset with NZ Post for not telling the "entrants" the information they supplied would be on-sold. Mrs Shroff defends the "victims", arguing many people are very trusting when asked to give personal or financial details, especially when encouraged by the chance to enter a competition.

Very trusting is too generous. Stupid would be another word. That's for any entrants who might now be crying foul. Surely any child of the 20th century should be wary of filling in random forms. What did they think the post man was going to do with all this information, all totally unrelated to getting a letter swiftly to their mail box?

The alternative scenario is that Mrs Shroff and the rest of us who have grown up with Kafkaesque nightmares of the misuse of personal information are just old fogeys, overtaken by time and technology. Perhaps those who filled in the NZ Post survey did so with eyes wide open, happy to sell their details in exchange for a raffle ticket.

Denizens of the Facebook world don't appear to share or value the concerns about privacy that my generation agonised about and passed laws trying to protect. It's as though the global village that the internet has created has become like the old villages of yore, with no secrets and everyone fast learning everyone else's business.

Even plans by Wellington Combined Taxis to install sound recorders with video cameras in their cabs seemed to drift by unremarked, until lawyers Mai Chen and Michael Bott expressed outrage. The Government imposed regulations forcing all cabs to be equipped with video surveillance by August following a spate of assaults on drivers. The taxi company decided because the cameras came with sound equipment, they'd hook that up as well.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce seemed unconcerned. "It's not an oversight," he said, "it was actually considered by officials at the time and they decided they wouldn't make it a requirement, they also wouldn't make it a requirement not to do it."

Ms Chen said she would boycott the cabs if the voice recording was installed. Both lawyers pointed out the voice recorders were not mentioned in the surveillance legislation and that passengers would not be warned they were being recorded. Not only was there the potential for embarrassment if the tapes fell into the wrong hands, but there was no protection against them being used against passengers in future litigation. Such stirring had the required effect and the taxi company dropped their plans.

While upset about NZ Post's invasions of privacy, Mrs Shroff recently proposed to amend the Credit Reporting Privacy Code to allow credit reporting agencies not just to collect and release details of your bad debts, but also to share more detailed information of your overall credit behaviour, including whether you pay your mortgage and credit card and other such bills on time each month.

The credit industry has been clamouring for this, claiming it gives them a better picture of your credit worthiness. No doubt it does, as long as the information is accurate. It's in this area we old fogeys still have a point. If Big Brother in his various guises is permitted to collect information, it's important to ensure what he gets is accurate. Even more important is that it be interpreted fairly.

- NZ Herald

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