Instinctively, we feel sympathy for the victim of blackmail, not the deliverer of the threat. Child, Youth and Family was counting on just that emotional response this week when it accused a woman of holding it to ransom over the return of her children. Never mind that this amounted to shooting a messenger who had raised valid questions about its practices.
That seems to be of no concern to government agencies which, increasingly, are reacting stridently to people wanting to talk about confidential information they have received through no fault of their own.
The woman highlighted in today's Herald on Sunday has been fighting for almost seven years to get her children back. She received private information about a CYF case relating to a convicted killer getting custody of a child after being released from prison. Naturally, she compared this case to her own - that of a woman who had done parenting courses, had no criminal convictions and did not take drugs or drink alcohol.
Angry after a meeting with CYF, which repeated that she would not get her children back, she threatened to release the private information.
Subsequently, CYF served the woman with a Family Court order prohibiting publication of the information and issued the blackmail accusation. Duely, the latter grabbed headlines, distracting attention from the concerns raised by a comparison of the two cases. At face value, the woman appears to have been treated unfairly, especially as a parenting programme had recommended her children be returned to her five years ago.
In essence, CYF has chosen to construe the woman's angry words a certain way, rather than look at its practices. It has portrayed her as the culprit when, in fact, she is caught in the middle of a situation not of her own making. She, of course, is not alone. There has been a succession of major privacy breaches involving government agencies, including also the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Ministry of Social Development and the Earthquake Commission.
The latter instance featured disturbing similarities to the CYF case. Bryan Staples, who mistakenly received details of the 98,000 claims that Canterbury earthquake victims have made for home repairs, sought to highlight instances of the EQC withholding approval for repair work for elderly or infirm people for what he considered petty reasons. He was pursuing $700,000 in payments from EQC where his company had decided to press ahead with repair work for some of these people rather than wait for EQC approval.
Staples raised valid issues about commission practices. But rather than address these, the agency obtained a High Court injunction preventing the disclosure of the email's content. Again, a whistleblower was painted as the culprit as he sought to highlight information that was in the public interest. Pertinently, disclosure that passes the public interest test can negate the normal legal duty to keep confidential and return any information which has been received accidentally.
The bottom line is that government agencies must handle private data with more care. The public has to entrust them with much sensitive private information. The string of major breaches has shaken confidence, so much so that the Privacy Commissioner says a wide-ranging review of their handling of private data may be warranted. Safeguarding information should be the agencies' focus, not unnecessarily vindictive acts against those who receive it inadvertently.