David Rutherford: Privacy at risk in child safety push

Our government departments are setting up new data-sharing systems that New Zealanders ought to discuss, writes David Rutherford.
Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

One child has been killed every five weeks on average in New Zealand for decades. That is an appalling statistic, and beneath it is a pyramid of child abuse.

We are confronted with this grim reality in the media on an almost daily basis and it is easy to feel defeated or powerless in the face of it all.

But the technical capacity now available to collate, interrogate, analyse and share data is creating exciting new opportunities to protect the lives and security of these children.

The Government is very much on to this through the social investment model being led by Bill English, much of the architecture for which is already in place.

The basic legislative platform was created by amendments to the Privacy Act in 2013 which enabled Approved Information Sharing Agreements between government agencies, and substituted the imminence test for intervention against "serious risk" with a focus on the severity of the possible harm and the probability of it occurring.

This has made possible a world-leading Integrated Data Infrastructure that Statistics New Zealand has developed to bring together data from the Ministries of Social Development, Health, Education, Child, Youth and Family (CYF), Corrections, Police and Housing that is the foundation stone on which the social investment approach is built.

The other critical information resource is the Social Investment Insights tool developed by the Treasury which maps at-risk New Zealanders to age 24 across the country, right down to suburb level, based on four key risk indicators - having a parent in the penal system, being mostly supported by benefits since birth, having a mother with no formal qualifications and having a CYF finding of abuse or neglect.

These elements together could put New Zealand at the cutting edge of using data to drive good human rights outcomes.

They could bring a new precision to policy-making and - more importantly - to the frontline delivery of services. But there are difficult issues which must be negotiated carefully, most particularly in the privacy area.

The Human Rights Commission's interest in this stems from the rights implications. Essentially our view, and our advice to the Children's Action Plan in 2013, is that information-sharing arrangements to protect vulnerable children derive their legitimacy from the right of the child to a safe life.

Also relevant is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory. A core principle of the convention is that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration.

It follows from this that protection of a child's right to a secure existence can trump the privacy rights of a parent or other caregiver.

But this must only be done as a last resort, after every effort has been made to secure consent, and the general public must be generally satisfied that the right to privacy is not being trampled on lightly or for reasons of administrative convenience.

Surveys in New Zealand and elsewhere show consistently that people are not confident that their private data will be held securely and are squeamish about the uses to which it will be put, particularly when mined for commercial gain or shared between or with government departments to the individual's disadvantage.

The Government recognises that the positive uses of Big Data can be harnessed effectively only within a general environment of informed consent and that this will be forthcoming only if the great majority of New Zealanders are comfortable that sensitive personal information will be treated sensitively.

It has appointed the Data Futures Partnership, comprising influential individuals, to lead a conversation later this year around the development of an agreed framework for data sharing. The commission hopes New Zealanders will engage in this discussion.

David Rutherford is Chief Human Rights Commissioner.

Where to get help:

If it is an emergency and you or someone you know is at risk, call 111.
Victim Support: 0800 842 846
Lifeline: (09) 522 2999
Family Violence Info Line: 0800 456 450

- NZ Herald

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