Departing Privacy Commissioner says firms and governments need to be held in check

Departing Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff has issued a stern warning over the growing threat posed by big data entities including governments and large internet companies such as Google and underlined the need for her office to have more power to keep them in check.

In her valedictory speech, Ms Shroff said attitudes to her office and its work had changed over her 10 years in charge. From being regarded as "creepy and dangerous" by some media it was now viewed as a valuable curb on growing threats to privacy posed by Government data collection, storage and sharing.

"The public has woken up to the fact that their information is not completely safe with business or government or on the internet - if it ever was."

Part of that change was down to the string of data breaches at ACC, the Ministry of Social Development and the Earthquake Commission as well as Telecom Yahoo Xtra email breaches.


She said the "mega growth" of computing power and storage over the past decade, including mobile computing, location tracking and facial recognition technology had been rocket fuel for the growth of government and business databases.

"It has silently handed over to them on a plate the power to collect, farm and exploit those vast data stores for business and government advantage."

Ms Shroff cited the rise of "the stack" or a model developed by a handful of large companies to provide multiple services.

"Internet corporates such as Google want to corral you into relying on their services alone. Almost everything you do can be stacked up in a service manner".

Referring to a cartoon showing God outsourcing his "all seeing all knowing" function to Google, Ms Shroff said "that's pretty much what it's like".

She said the Government was similarly adopting a comprehensive information sharing structure across its functions as allowed under a recent amendment to the Privacy Act.

"I welcome the privacy safeguards that have been built into this legislation at the suggestion of the Law Commission and my office but there's no getting away from the fact that there's also a government stack developing which will share our information and dominate our lives into the future."

But she also said New Zealanders shouldn't forget "what we willingly do ourselves" in terms of the digital trail left on social networks, online commerce sites and cloud storage.


"The internet and information technology empower us hugely but they also put us at huge risk."

One of the more exciting parts of her time as Privacy Commissioner was seeing "the dawning of international efforts to bring some order to the wilder frontiers of IT".

"We're all working to develop some rules and standards to protect us in this new world of data."

Internationally, governments were all struggling with the issue and in an interesting development, international groups were starting to take the lead on regulation which was potentially the way of the future. The US Government is also now getting tough on the internet giants.

Ms Shroff spoke of the slow pace of reforms of the Privacy Act to deal with a rapidly changing environment but was hopeful strengthening of the act was "just over the horizon" along with more resources for her "under-pressure and under-resourced" office.

"The changes to the Privacy Act will hopefully bring some sharp edges such as compulsory breach notification power to audit, to require compliance, and I hope the Office of the Privacy Commissioner will continue to encourage the growing majority of willing compliers in the regulatory pyramid but with increased power to hit back at those people at the top which we currently don't have. We need that sharp bite to get at those unwilling compliers."

Ms Shroff steps down on February 14 and will be replaced by lawyer John Edwards.