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Cosgrove: The Way Ahead For Privacy In New Zealand

The Way Ahead For Privacy In New Zealand

Reforming the Privacy Act is a priority for this Government during this parliamentary term. The wide ranging provisions of the Privacy Act also need to keep pace with technological, scientific and human rights developments.


Delivered by Hon Clayton Cosgrove, Associate Minister of Justice

Good morning. I'd like to start by thanking you for the opportunity to give this opening speech to this year's Privacy Issues Forum. It is a pleasure to be here. I see from the programme that you have an interesting day lined up.

I have been asked to speak to you on "The Way Ahead for Privacy in New Zealand". This is a large topic and I only have ten minutes. So, I will limit myself to covering just two things:

First, the work that the Privacy Commissioner and her office, and my officials have been undertaking to improve privacy law in New Zealand.

Second, some of the challenges that lie ahead for privacy in New Zealand. In particular, the challenges created by the development of new technologies.

New Zealand is lucky enough to have extremely good privacy legislation. It is held up internationally as a comprehensive model. It also establishes a Privacy Commissioner, with very broad powers. The current Commissioner is a previous Cabinet Secretary, and before that, worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Together with her office, which includes some of New Zealand's foremost experts in the privacy arena, our country is very well placed to chart "the way ahead for privacy".

The Commissioner and her office are continuing to ensure that privacy law in New Zealand is relevant, modern, and suited to the domestic environment. An excellent example of this is the Credit Reporting Privacy Code, which will come into full effect this Saturday, on 1 April 2006.

Privacy codes are issued under the Act by the Commissioner, to tailor the legislation to the needs of specialist users. The Credit Reporting Privacy Code has been acknowledged as a success by Baycorp Advantage, New Zealand's largest credit reporting agency. It is a balanced outcome, recognising the value of credit reporting while giving New Zealanders free access to their own credit reports. I would like to pay a personal tribute to the hard work of the Privacy Commissioner and her staff for seeing it come to fruition.

Reforming the Privacy Act is a priority for this Government during this parliamentary term. The need for reform has been apparent since 1998, when the Privacy Commissioner of the time, Mr Bruce Slane, published the first operational review of the Act. The wide ranging provisions of the Privacy Act also need to keep pace with technological, scientific and human rights developments.

Work to modernise the Privacy Act to meet many of the Privacy Commissioner's recommendations and to update the law is well advanced. Officials have worked closely with the Privacy Commissioner's office, turning them into proposals for Ministers to consider. They include some very important reforms, including the arrangements for information sharing between countries - particularly the European Union. There are also reforms to ensure that personal information is not misused. The government's intention is to turn these proposals into legislation during this Parliamentary term. Once we do so, I think again that we will be able to say that New Zealand is well placed for "the way ahead for privacy".

I would now like to comment on the challenges that lie ahead for privacy in New Zealand. Some refer to the time in which we are now living as the "Digital Age".

The development of new technologies is creating a world where it is becoming easier to collect and use an individual's personal information, without that individual's awareness or consent.

Some people question whether privacy is still possible in a "Digital Age". A fair question. However, where information is available in digital format I believe good privacy legislation that balances the needs of business, government and the private citizen has become more important than ever before.

New Zealand's Privacy Act is based on an OECD standard that applies to privacy legislation across the western world. The OECD recommendations promulgate a set of general principles that can be applied in any number of situations, no matter what technology is involved. While improvements and refinements will always be necessary, I am confident that this approach should significantly address the challenge of the changing digital age.

One area that may be covered today in this conference is biometric technology - the use of automation to recognise unique human characteristics. This is a good example of a challenge to privacy and its way ahead. What, for example, do access and correction rights actually mean in the context of biometric information? In the case of fingerprint sensors, does an individual have a right to access and correct the copy of their fingerprint, or do they have a right to access and correct the algorithm that their fingerprint has been converted into?

The privacy questions around biometric technology will continue as this technology develops. Technologies now exist to recognise an individual by their fingerprint, their iris, their voice, the shape of their ear, or even by their body odour!

Another new technology that has received media attention recently is radio frequency identification technology. This is widely used in the USA and Europe, and the New Zealand business "The Warehouse" has recently announced its intention to pilot radio frequency identification technology in a number of its stores. These radio frequency chips will allow The Warehouse to track pallets and cartons throughout its warehouses and stockrooms.

The business advantages of this technology are significant. Radio frequency identification technology - "RFID technology" - allows businesses to keep a real time inventory of the number of products held in the stockrooms and on the shelves. But the business advantages also need to be balanced with the need to protect individuals' privacy. For example, if RFID chips are to be used to track goods, it may be desirable or even necessary for those chips to be removed or disabled before they fall into the hands of an individual consumer.

The European Commission is aware of the issues surrounding RFID technology. The Commission recently launched public debate on the issue at a conference in Germany. At that conference, the Commission noted the need "to keep Europe more innovative and competitive in the world economy while at the same time giving citizens the tools and choices they need to ensure privacy and security."

This balancing of business advantage and individual privacy is often the challenge when assessing the desirability of new technologies. Properly designed privacy law can achieve that balance.

I agree wholeheartedly with the title of the Australian Privacy Commissioner's speech that you will hear after my one: "Good Privacy is Good Business".

Good privacy law allows individuals to engage in technologies that offer economic advantages to them and to business. Many New Zealanders now use the internet for a variety of everyday transactions. A number of government services are also offered online now. For example, during this year's census, New Zealanders were able to fill out their census forms online.

The use of internet in these transactions can introduce significant savings for agencies and individuals, not to mention a degree of convenience. Individuals must continue to have confidence in these processes and continue to use them, so that these advantages are retained.

Recent surveys of Americans have found that many consumers are afraid to purchase products or services online because of fears about online security. Given the high rate of identity theft in that country perhaps Americans have more reason to be afraid. Thankfully, identity theft has not become a huge problem in New Zealand, but there is no room for complacency - we need to ensure that this remains the case.

In closing, I would note that other government agencies are also working to ensure that the privacy of New Zealanders is protected. The Commerce Select Committee is currently calling for submissions on the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Bill. More commonly known as 'spam', unsolicited electronic messages have become a significant problem worldwide, because of their sheer volume. The Unsolicited Electronic Messages Bill, if enacted, will prohibit sending unsolicited electronic messages of a marketing nature and will thereby provide a legislative basis to stop the growth of spam. I understand you will hear more on this question of 'spam' from the people at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts later in the day.

The continuing development of new technologies is likely to keep our privacy specialists "on their toes". That is why it is so encouraging to see events like this organised, where experts can get together and discuss the issues in the area.

I am particularly pleased to see that today's Forum is so well attended by some of Australia's experts. Overseas experience can provide New Zealand with a "head's up" on issues that might be coming our way in the near future. It can also provide a fresh perspective on how to address issues that have already arisen in our country.

I hope you all enjoy an interesting and productive day at today's Privacy Issues Forum.

Thank you.


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