Bruce Bisset: Private lives are too often public

By Bruce Bisset

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Seems to me the whole notion of what should or shouldn't be private is in the process of being turned on its head, with personal details increasingly made public while acts of government and business are increasingly kept secret.

For all the furore regarding ACC and WINZ and other departmental leaks of personal records, there are myriad "legitimate" shares, swaps and sales of "private" information - everything from how good a driver you are to what you like for breakfast.

Although many citizens appear blithely unconcerned about sharing their most intimate affairs with the world via social media, many would still be horrified at how minutely they are profiled for the purposes of governance or commercial advantage.

Every time you enter a competition or simply swipe your credit card, you add to a mountain of data about yourself that businesses make their living from collecting, analysing, and then on-selling to other businesses for whom you may be a marketing target.

Government departments collect a mass of detail on income and health and the like, and along with sharing your files among themselves also trade them with banks or finance companies or anyone else claiming "legitimate interest" to check your credit worthiness.

Under the National Government, the scope of what's potentially publicly available and the ways it can be shared has expanded significantly. One example is the data validation service run by Internal Affairs, which allows business users to enter the information they hold into the service website and confirm whether it's consistent with other personal details held by the department, such as citizenship, passports and births, and marriages.

The sum of all this data mining is best illustrated by a "data broker" service such as NZ Post's Genius tool, which divides addresses by more than 1000 variables, including house value and ethnicity.

Every property in the country is mapped and tagged by colour-coded swatches given twee names such as "Rice and Shine" (Asian ethnicity, spending above-average on cars and smash repairs) or "Close Quarter Living" (younger people in the CBD, spending more on takeaways and clubbing) and so on.

Most mid- to large-sized companies, as well as charities, buy the data that fits their target market, so they know who to contact.

The Privacy Commissioner, who usually acts only on complaint, wants powers to monitor companies that collect and sell personal information. Unremarkably this idea has been cold-shouldered by National.

Meanwhile government has lately shown an unflattering propensity to make free with extremely sensitive material thanks to a series of IT security failures; doubtless caused by cuts in budgets and staff numbers leading either to slipshod work habits or deliberate "payback" breaches.

But its own actions, and those of its mates, are increasingly veiled in secrecy. Legislation for charter schools, state asset sales and changes to mining permits have all attempted to disconnect from the Official Information Act, a trend the Ombudsmen's Office labels "highly dangerous" and "reprehensible".

The too-ready excuse of "commercial sensitivity" crops up in local governance, too, often in strange ways, such as the decision (now reversed) by Hawke's Bay Regional Council to keep the content of public submissions on the water storage project secret.

The Privacy Act itself can be used in absurdist ways that prevent surety. For instance a tenant in a property I manage needed help to "top up" his rent, but the Winz office refused to confirm or deny whether it had given him the money. Apart from the fact I had a pecuniary interest in knowing, were they unconcerned if the money was not used for the purpose and therefore obtained fraudulently? Because if they couldn't say, neither could I.

We all need to draw our own lines as to what is or isn't public or private about us. The concern is that that choice is being taken out of our hands, often by stealth. If government cannot be trusted to keep our confidences, perhaps it is time to review the way sharing information is consented and put control for such consents firmly back in the hands of the individual.

After all, it's our lives that "users" are buying.

That's the right of it.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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