Living in Interesting Times—A View from the New Zealand Privacy Office

One of the dubious delights of being a privacy regulator is the unexpected things that crop up during every working week. It doesn’t matter how I plan and prioritise work—some headline-grabbing issue or urgent demand for time and attention will come across the desk and force a rethink. It can be a challenge, but it certainly keeps the job interesting.

For instance in 2013, Edward Snowden’s revelations over government surveillance exploded onto our news feeds at the very time we were making submissions on the government’s plans to revise intelligence agency statutes. Wearable technology and unmanned aerial vehicles raised urgent questions—and not just along the lines of “can I have one for Christmas?” Continuing major data breaches, for example by the Earthquake Commission, challenged public confidence in government and business institutions alike, and some required urgent input from our office.

With this backdrop, we expect our upcoming public opinion poll is likely to show an upward trend in people’s concerns about privacy and security—overseas polls certainly suggest that concerns are increasing.

Leaving space to deal with the unexpected isn’t easy when even the “known knowns” —or should that be “known unknowns”? —occupy us full time. These include the government’s intention to reform the 20-year-old Privacy Act. The exact shape of the changes is still tba, but we’re hoping for announcements reasonably soon. Proposed changes by the Law Commission, if accepted, would include putting a few more items in our enforcement toolbox, to enable us to deal better with modern information practices and to speed up our current investigations processes. Fingers crossed.

Another challenge is that we believe biometrics is an emerging area that will get more media and public attention. Facial recognition, finger printing and other physiological signature technologies are increasingly being explored as solutions, or options, to deal with a variety of problems. The earlier focus has been on biometric applications in situations such as border control, but applications of biometric technologies are now cropping up in many other domestic and commercial settings.

New applications of technology will continue to challenge us, such as the much heralded Internet of Things and various types of “smart” systems. The different types of wearable technology are only going to grow. Also, younger and younger children are interacting with others online and publishing information about themselves. On the latter issue, we’re looking forward to the launch of our “OWLS” teaching resources for primary schools on 11 February—teaching kids to be wise about privacy online.

Privacy breach notifications are on the rise, and there’s no reason to think that this trend will change in the near future. Breaches are going to continue, particularly in those entities where information management systems are still relatively immature. We were (voluntarily) notified of 107 breaches in the 2012/13 year, compared with 46 for the previous 12 months. This is not necessarily an indication of rising breach numbers—most of which we still wouldn’t know about—but, we optimistically think, shows an increase in awareness about breaches from agencies. Growing breach reporting, though, also ups the pressure on us to provide useful advice and to follow up with investigations into agencies that have had major lapses.

Some of our recent data breach notifications have involved lost or stolen portable devices, including ones supplied by employees. Managing BYOD successfully is becoming a real issue for organisations, particularly with ubiquitous smart phones and the need for more flexible work practices. There’s a growing need for organisations to get their heads around the topic, and to establish or adapt their policies and practices, to get work done efficiently and safely.

It is also poised to be a big year for developments in healthcare information management, with shared care services being introduced by some major health agencies. We’ll continue moving towards new online portals, to enable patients to self-manage their medical records, book doctor appointments, receive results and contact their GPs. Information security and other privacy issues will be closely watched—by us and others—because trust and confidence is so integral to getting people to use the new systems.

Late in 2013, the government announced that it would establish the new role of Government Chief Privacy Officer. This all-of-government position will place privacy at the highest levels of public administration and bring it into line with how many large businesses operate. This is a good investment in helping to improve how people’s personal information is handled.

Last but far from least, we’re kicking off this year with a new Privacy Commissioner. Marie Shroff is stepping down after 10 years (two terms) in the role, and John Edwards will take up the job on 17 February. We’re sure he’ll enjoy it, challenging though being a privacy watchdog can be in these interesting times.

photo credit: Chris Gin via photopin cc

Written By

Katrine Evans


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