18 November 2014
The case of Phillip John Smith has raised many questions which are now the subject of a number of inquiries so it is therefore imprudent to be commenting too specifically about it before these have been completed. However, it does raise broader issues regarding individual privacy in age of increasingly joined-up government.
As a constituency MP, I am struck constantly by the number of people I see who genuinely assume that their basic information is already readily accessible by a range of government agencies. Moreover, they seem somewhat surprised – and in some cases become quite agitated (“I have already given that information to such and such a government agency”) – when asked to provide it again. They not only expect their information to have been passed on, but seem to think that is acceptable.
But, by way of contrast, people appear far more concerned at a global level about the sharing of their personal information and the implication that nothing is private any more, and that their every communication, indeed activity, is monitored in some way by an increasingly inquisitive state. And all this is occurring against a backdrop of a communications revolution which is making the capacity to obtain and share information greater day by day, and where the whole process of government is increasingly technologically driven.
This apparent contradiction has particular implications for New Zealand. We are at the forefront of nations when it comes to joined-up government services, and New Zealanders are increasingly taken with the idea of doing their business with government – like paying their taxes, or renewing their passports – on-line, and at a time of their convenience. They like the freedom new circumstances are now providing, and are pushing the government to do more in that space.
So when a case like Smith arises people properly want to know why the relevant agencies did not have access to all the relevant information at the earliest opportunity, and as a matter of course. Our lack of tolerance for Smith’s behaviour is understandable, and we have some lessons to learn from what has happened to ensure there are no repeats.
Now, a number of challenges lie within all of this. The information technology explosion has only just begun, and it would be foolish to think otherwise. Today’s challenges are likely to seem miniscule to those that lie ahead.
The potential advantages of joined-up government are great – particularly to the individual – but so too are the risks. Information sharing is the way of the future, but it needs to be balanced by ensuring that our privacy and official information legislation, and official functions like those of the Ombudsman and the Privacy Commissioner are kept fit for purpose to ensure they can effectively protect the individual from any Orwellian risks inherent in the expansion of joined-up government. The balance between information sharing to enhance people’s lives, and information sharing to control them is a fine one, demanding constant vigilance. There is, after all, now no turning back.