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Commissioner’s Office reports complaints reduction

29 November 2005

Privacy Commissioner’s Office reports complaints reduction

Active case management and improved compliance with privacy requirements are helping to control the volume of complaints being dealt with by her Office, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says.

The Office’s Annual Report, which was released today, shows that complaints under investigation have fallen by nearly a third – from 818 to 569 – in a year.

The number of new complaints being made to the Office about breaches of privacy has also dropped.

“There are internal and external factors at work here,” Mrs Shroff says. “First, this Office has been working very hard to clear a historical backlog of complaints and second, we have been putting a strong emphasis on helping people sort out their own privacy difficulties.”

Of the 970 complaints closed by the Office in the year to June 30, 637 were able to be resolved by informal conciliation between the parties.

“Very often, with some assistance from us, people who feel their privacy has been compromised in some way are able to deal directly with the organisation they’re concerned about, correct the problem and get an outcome they’re pleased with.

“Direct settlement between the parties has got to be better than a full, formal investigation,” Mrs Shroff says.

There are also encouraging external factors behind a fall in complaint volumes, Mrs Shroff says.

“Complaints against ACC, the Police and Baycorp are well down and the number of complaints against the ‘top 10’ companies and government agencies is down collectively as well.

The lower level of complaints being received reflects the fact that we are increasingly referring issues to privacy officers in organisations. We are also assisting privacy officers to understand the rights and obligations set out in the Privacy Act,” Mrs Shroff says.

“A major positive step this year was the phased introduction in April of the Credit Reporting Privacy Code. Already many individuals are taking advantage of the ability to access their credit reports free of charge and so correct any errors.

“From next April further provisions will come into force under the Code that will help protect people’s rights while still allowing the credit reporting industry to do its job.”

A large section of the Privacy Commissioner’s Annual Report is devoted to data matching – the process by which government agencies compare databases to establish, for example, entitlement to services, or instances of benefit fraud.

“Data matching is growing very fast,” Mrs Shroff says. “In just three years the instances of disclosure of personal records by one government agency to another have doubled from 10.8 million to 21.4 million. There are 36 data matching programmes operating now, compared with 16 three years ago.

“This whole area has considerable potential for mistakes and mismatches, and so our watchdog role is important. Our conclusions in the last year are that the large majority of data matching programmes have been run well and in accordance with privacy legislation and rules.

“The Privacy Office has established a Technology Team specifically to ensure we keep on top of the rapid growth in information matching and technology developments with privacy implications.”

Key points from the report are attached.

An electronic copy of the Annual Report is available at - http://www.privacy.org.nz

KEY POINTS

- The potential for unwarranted intrusions into the privacy of individuals is rising rapidly, as are demands on the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Rapid growth of information technologies means there are ever more means and opportunities by which the right to privacy can be compromised.

- In 2004/05 some 21.4 million personal records were officially disclosed by one government agency to another through information matches (database comparisons), around twice the 10.8 million of just three years ago. There were 36 such matching programmes in operation in 2004/5, compared with 16 three years ago.

- In response to such demands, a three-person Technology Team was established within the Office in 2004/05 to monitor government information matching and technology developments with privacy implications.

- Despite the growing scope for challenges to privacy, the number of complaints under investigation by the Office dropped by 30 percent, from 818 to 569, between 2003/04 and 2004/05. This represents both a concerted effort by the Office to clear a backlog of complaints and increased efforts by the Office to assist individuals so they can resolve complaints directly with the agency involved.

- The “top 10” respondent agencies in terms of complaints made to the Office in 2004/05 were ACC (51), the Police (44), Ministry of Social Development (36), the Immigration Service (28), Corrections (23), CYFS (22), Baycorp Advantage (19), Capital and Coast DHB (14), IRD (10) and Telecom (8). Numbers of complaints against the top 10 agencies have dropped overall and complaints against ACC, Police and Baycorp have dropped significantly since last year.

- A landmark Credit Reporting Privacy Code began operating in April. It is designed to enhance privacy protection and promote improvements to the accuracy of credit reporting, while at the same time minimising compliance costs. As a first step, anyone can now access his or her own credit reports free of charge. Further provisions will come into effect in April 2006.

- Modest additional funding helped significantly with the work of the Office in 2004/05, particularly in the clearing of complaints backlogs and the employment of specialist staff.

- The Office continued to place a strong effort on education and communication with the aim of raising public awareness about privacy issues.

- During the year, Office staff helped to set up a network of privacy officers (from both government and private organisations) in Auckland and Wellington. The network is intended to bring about informal sharing of knowledge and therefore improved Privacy Act compliance among the agencies involved.

ENDS

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