Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the APNZ News Service office in Wellington.

EQC privacy breach: 80,000 affected

File photo / Geoff Sloan
File photo / Geoff Sloan

The massive Earthquake Commission privacy breach involving the details of more than 80,000 people is just another reason not to take the organisation seriously, Christchurch residents say.

EQC announced today that every Canterbury resident who had made a home repair claim after the quakes had their privacy breached last week.

It is believed to be one of the largest privacy breaches by a government agency in the country's history.

EQC bosses have been summoned to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's office at 9am tomorrow for a "please explain" meeting.

Christchurch resident Lesley Fulton needs about $100,000 worth of repairs on her New Brighton property and is facing her third winter with cracks in her home.

She had made a claim with EQC and her address, claim number and possibly details of the claim was one of 83,000 that were mistakenly emailed to a former EQC contractor.

"It's really frustrating that somebody else can get the information but you just can't get anything out of them, you just have to wait," she said today.

Ms Fulton said she didn't think anybody in Canterbury really expected much from the commission.

"It's just become a bit of a standing joke...this is just another piece of EQC nonsense really."

Her neighbour Ryan Connolly has liquefaction underneath his home and other small amounts of damage.

He said there should have been a process in place to stop that kind of error from happening.

"I want to know where my claim is up to before anyone else does," he said.

"It seems like a fly by night sort of regime up there."

EQC chief executive Ian Simpson told media he found out today about the scale of the breach.

It was initially thought the information of 9700 people was emailed in error, but that scale had ballooned to eight times in size after it was realised if filters within the spreadsheet were manipulated, all the claims could be seen.

The information covered 98,000 claims from the residents, he said.

The information has since been destroyed but not before the email recipient and up to four others who were in the room saw the information.

One of those people passed the scale of the breach on to Labour's earthquake recovery spokeswoman Lianne Dalziel at the weekend.

An EQC spokesman said it appeared Ms Dalziel was told only of the scope of the privacy breach rather than any details, and they would not be pursuing the person.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said it was ironic because there were thousands of people in Christchurch desperate to get a hold of their EQC files and now someone who didn't want them had in excess of 80,000 of them.

"It reminds me of that old saying, 'To err is human, to really screw up takes a computer'."

Mr Parker would leave it up to the Mr Brownlee to speak with EQC about the issue.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff would not comment on the breach while the details were still unfolding but a spokeswoman said she had already approached the States Services Commissioner Iain Rennie and the Government's chief information officer to "emphasise that (privacy breaches) really are something that needs to be fixed".

Mr Simpson said the EQC would be taking advertising in the media to alert people to the breach.

"I'm very unhappy about what's happened. It's very embarrassing and extremely disappointing," Mr Simpson said.

The first course of action is to review the procedures, but he stopped short of saying heads would roll.

Mr Simpson apologised unreservedly for the breach.

"This is a blow, I'm extremely disappointed it's happened and all I can do is apologise."

An independent investigation into the breach had been launched and EQC had turned off the auto populate function in the email system so email recipients could not be emailed in error.

Key plays down issue

Prime Minister John Key has played down the extent of a privacy breach by the Earthquake Commission in which the information of 83,000 claimants was leaked.

Mr Key said he was disappointed but breaches were expected to some extent in all government departments and agencies.

"For the sheer volume of information that's dealt with the number of breaches are relatively small or decreasing.

"EQC has been dealing with huge amounts of information and hundreds of thousands of client contacts in the last few years and have had one breach."

- APNZ

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