Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Privacy shakeup for the internet age

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

A report into privacy law recommends an overhaul should include measures to prevent unwanted telephone marketing, and closing a loophole that allows people to publish offensive photos of their partners online.

In a law review tabled in Parliament yesterday, the Privacy Commission also recommends greater sharing of private information by government agencies, while strengthening enforcement and protection of individual privacy.

"Technology is barrelling at the rate of knots. Information can be collected, stored and used now in ways it never could in the past, but there are also risks to privacy, and that's the balance we have to draw," said Law Commissioner Professor John Burrows.

The commission's final report, Review of the Privacy Act 1993, contains 136 recommendations and is the culmination of a four-stage review of privacy law.

Professor Burrows said privacy was enormously important to people, as evidenced by the British phone hacking scandal.

"The depth of outrage there was extreme worldwide, and that shows you people don't like other people messing with their personal information."

Changes proposed include a statutory "do not call register" which would allow New Zealanders to choose not to receive telephone marketing calls.

The commission also recommends the exemption for personal or domestic information should not apply if the collection or disclosure of the information would be highly offensive.

The change would deal with situations such as when a person posts naked photographs of their ex-partner online without consent.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff welcomed the report. "It will put, for the first time, the careless, the predatory and the criminal on notice," she said. "There will be consequences if you misuse our information."

Ms Shroff said a more streamlined process for privacy complaints and the ability for the commissioner to issue compliance notices would give better protection for individuals and quick, cheap and effective answers when bad things happened. "The only people to end up worse off as a result of these proposals will be the criminals and the cowboys."

The proposal enabling the taking down of offensive material online was particularly welcome and would allow the commissioner to approach both the person posting the material and organisations, such as Facebook, carrying the material. "In those circumstances I would expect Facebook to have good mechanisms for taking down inappropriate or offensive material." she said.

"I don't want to be going after 12-year-olds who post inappropriate material on Facebook."

Professor Burrows said information was now a global commodity crossing boundaries and it was important that our privacy laws were on a par with other countries. "Europe in particular has strong privacy laws. If they see we're lagging behind, that can have international implications for us."

He described the complaints process as "clunky" and said the Privacy Commissioner should have more powers. "Currently she has virtually no powers at all to fix things.".

It was important privacy was not seen as the overriding virtue and the only value in society - that privacy needed to be balanced against law enforcement, heath and safety and freedom of speech.

"Sometimes people do shelter behind the Privacy Act and refuse to give out information when actually they probably could give it out. It's a syndrome we call BOTPA (Because of the Privacy Act)."

The report recommended clarifications of the act. "If you suspect somebody has committed an offence, you should be able to tell the police." Similarly you should also be able to tell the appropriate people about a person's health problems if the health threat was serious.

He cited examples of people who had taken their own life and coroners pointing out that if somebody had known earlier, something may have be able to be done to prevent the suicide.

- NZ Herald

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