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Burglars Commit 20,000+ Privacy Heist - Wishart

EMBARGOED TO 00:01 hrs, 23 September 1999

The author of a bestselling book on privacy says a burglary that’s netted criminals the names, addresses and possibly even credit card details of thousands of New Zealanders may be the biggest ever privacy breach in this country.

Journalist and author Ian Wishart, whose book The God Factor was published two months ago, warned at the time of its release that a security bungle like this was only a matter of time away.

His comments this morning follow the weekend burglary – only revealed today – of the Automobile Association’s Shirley office in Christchurch.

Taken in the burglary was a collection of computer equipment and backup disks, understood to contain the personal records of up to 20,000 people who’ve applied for new drivers licences since May.

Detectives investigating the crime have told local businesses the AA office had been processing 200 licence applications a day, and details of those applications were stored on the office computer systems.

"When I published The God Factor, I was trying to warn New Zealanders that Governments and bureaucrats do not respect their privacy, nor do they treat the information with sufficient care. Criminals should never have been able to break in and steal such vital information.

"Around half a million New Zealanders will wake up this morning to the sobering realisation that by supplying the Government with their personal details, and even their credit card numbers in many cases, they have left themselves open to attack – either physically or financially – by criminals who can break in to any AA driver processing centre in the country and swipe their information."

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Mr Wishart said he had not been able to confirm at this point whether the information was password protected, but suggested that even if it was, it would be a rudimentary password system, probably capable of being broken by a computer-savvy teenager.

"Industrial-strength data encryption is not something that can be done at an AA reception desk, nor could they use top level encryption because of the large number of different organisations and people who are permitted to access the data. As such, it is likely that the criminals will be able to read the personal details of everyone on the stolen computers and disks.

"Organised crime syndicates overseas pay big money for credit card information. They use it to manufacture forged cards that they can use for a month before the genuine cardholder realises they’ve been swindled.

"It is also possible that the burglars at the AA office were after details of a specific individual or group of individuals."

Ian Wishart repeated the warning contained in The God Factor:

"There is nothing wrong with photo licences as such, or even ID cards. The problem lies in the security of personal information and who has access to it. There are few safeguards in the new Drivers Licence scheme, and I expect personal information to soon become available on the black market. People say they have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear, but they forget they are putting their trust in bureaucrats."

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