Govt agencies made thousands of information requests to just 10 companies
Government agencies made nearly 12,000 requests for Kiwis' personal information - from just 10 companies - over a three-month period last year, a new report has revealed.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which carried out the transparency trial, says nearly all of the requests led to information being handed out - a much higher rate than in other countries.
The privacy watchdog said it asked 10 companies from the telecommunications, financial services and utilities sectors to take part in the trial so it could better understand how agencies accessed Kiwis' details.
Between August and October last year, the companies received 11,799 requests for their customers' information, and complied entirely with nearly 96 per cent of those.
Inland Revenue made the most requests (4670), followed by police (3513) and the Ministry of Social Development (3150).
While the majority of requests were made using information-gathering powers, the companies handed over information voluntarily, without a court order or other legal compulsion, in over 2000 cases.
Westpac came under fire after voluntarily handing over the information of Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager to police in October last year.
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards told media it was hard to say whether the number of requests was excessive, given the lack of data collected in the past.
"We didn't really have a benchmark, we didn't know what we were going to find: we knew it was a pretty common occurrence for government agencies to seek financial details…[and that] police need assistance when investigating offences."
Edwards said there was not enough evidence to say whether the number of voluntary information releases was a worry.
However, he was concerned that more than 1000 requests had incorrectly been labelled by companies as "being made under the Privacy Act", when that law did not provide any obligation for them to provide information.
AGENCIES 'COULD BE CLEARER'
"They can go along and say, 'Listen, we're investigating, can you help us, and here's where why we think you should, and if the agency agrees...they can voluntarily do that.
"If they have any doubt whatsoever, it's open to them to say, 'Well we'd feel more comfortable if you had a statutory authority or an order from a court'."
Agencies "could be clearer" about whether they had powers to request information when speaking to companies, Edwards said.
"It might be helpful to make it clear when they're asking for the agency to exercise its own discretion and judgement."
It was also noteworthy that more than 95 per cent of requests led to information being provided - "a "much higher compliance rate" than overseas, where only 63 per cent of companies on average complied with information requests.
"We don't know whether it's a factor of really disciplined requests by law agencies or just unquestioned compliance by the companies, we don't know either way."
Edwards said his office would carry out another trial in 2016, encouraging more agencies and companies to take part and get more "rich information".
However, the companies themselves could take the lead on reporting the requests they received, he said.