The turnout at a lunchtime meeting with Privacy Commissioner John Edwards showed the matter of private information is a big issue.

Law firms, churches, health, welfare, child care, education and training groups were represented in Whangarei last week.

The Privacy Act was often represented in the community as "you can't tell anyone anything," Mr Edwards said. But issues around personal information were "quite tricky" and it was important the public knew about the obligations on agencies holding that information, he said.

Privacy Commission staff also ran a workshop for the Whangarei District Council.


The council was earlier this year ordered by the Human Rights Review Tribunal to train councillors and management staff about their obligations under the Privacy Act 1993. That followed the tribunal awarding Maungakaramea resident Wayne Deeming $2000 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings after a breach.

Organisations were obliged to show people information kept about them when asked, unless the disclosure might be harmful to other people also mentioned.

"Then the person asking for that private information goes to the Privacy Commissioner."

Of about 800 complaints a year to the Privacy Commission, about 60 per cent involved reviewing decisions to withhold information. Others included refusals to correct information that was wrong.

The Privacy Act was due for change but in the meantime would work alongside the upcoming Harmful Digital Communications Act that targets cyber bullying, digital technology breaches and "regulate some of the wild things that happen on social media".

While database sharing was an issue, also often at the nub of public concern was the Government Communications Security Bureau Bill, which was soon to be "ramped up", Mr Edwards said. A balance was needed between the legitimacy of acts for public safety and the authority of those laws, or "the social contract" on the other.

"People must ask, must question, must raise their concerns."