John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Someone deserves a medal

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Judith Collins is ready to sue anyone who suggests she let out Michelle Boag's email. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Judith Collins is ready to sue anyone who suggests she let out Michelle Boag's email. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Somebody in or near the Accident Compensation Corporation deserves a medal. I was going to award it to the minister, Judith Collins, but she is suing those who suggest it was she who ensured the name Bronwyn Pullar was brought to public notice, so it can't have been her.

I hope my hero is the case manager at ACC who accidentally emailed that file containing personal data on 6700 people to a persistent claimant last year. When news of that "massive privacy breach" hit the papers, I couldn't summon much concern. Email accidents can happen in an instant.

But when the corporation then accused the recipient of an attempt to use the accident to advance her own claim with threats that she would go to the media if her claim wasn't met, I rejoiced. It is so rare to see a public body return serve.

They didn't name Ms Pullar but the Herald on Sunday got hold of an email to the minister from the indomitable Michelle Boag that identified her, along with Ms Boag's own supporting role.

Ms Boag plays hard ball too. She said it was the ACC staffer they met in December who had made any benefit conditional on the return of the data.

Well, all we know is that three months after that meeting ACC's security lapse was made public. That suggests the ACC staff resisted Ms Pullar's injury claim, unlike its previous minister, Nick Smith, who succumbed eventually to her appeals to intercede.

ACC staff were not swayed by their minister's interest in the case. And when the information that Boag says they did not threaten to release was released, someone fought back, putting the whole story out. Brilliant.

Rare, brave, refreshing and brilliant.

Naturally, the Privacy Commission doesn't look at it this way. The commission is still hot on the trail of the accidental data release and this week, when Parliament turned the heat on the leak of the Boag email, the commissioner agreed to investigate that "privacy breach" too.

The commissioner is a sensible woman in a senseless job. Privately she might agree this investigation is not the best use of her funds. But if she can name the individual who leaked the Boag message, I'll provide the medal.

Internet security, as every emailer should know, is an oxymoron. The Privacy Act doesn't have any answers to the evolving ways that data can be used, misused, shared, lost or stolen with this stupendous technology.

Yesterday, when we learned Ms Pullar had invoked her National Party connections in a claim on the Sovereign Insurance company too, we also learned she claims to have software that enables her to track all the recipients of an email she sends.

Was that a breach of the ACC's privacy? The commission won't ask. By law its targets are largely confined to public bodies and its conclusions are predictable. The ACC will be asked to fine tune its data security in some way.

But who really cares about an accident such as this one? Personal information, even on health, is not so dreadfully embarrassing.

If a few of the 6700 ACC claimants whose details were inadvertently sent to Pullar's computer were reportedly victims of sexual abuse, their cases would have offered her no comparison with hers, a physical injury 10 years ago.

I prefer to assume she would have the decency not to peer into their details, but then she didn't have the decency to return or destroy the file as soon as she realised what had happened.

That failure disgraces her I think, regardless of what the police might decide about her subsequent dealings with the ACC.

The fall-out in Parliament this week was just a distraction, as was the collateral destruction of Nick Smith's career last week. Opposition parties are feasting like jackals on a kill they didn't make and they are hungry for more.

They have been asking hard questions of Judith Collins but she says she passed Ms Boag's email straight to ACC and she has invited the commissioner to search her computers. Now her critics will probably turn on the corporation.

The corporation has had a rough time in the past couple of years, particularly with its refusal to cover surgery for many injuries claimed by older people. Too many of those decisions were reversed on appeal.

But it was only doing its job. No job in the welfare state is harder. We all know how doctors thrust an ACC form into our hands for the slightest hurt. For my money - and yours - the corporation's assessors all deserve the medal. They deal with extortion every day.

Due to the offensive nature of posts, the comments feature has been turned off for this article.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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