Data-sharing blunder by ministry of social development to be probed

Report from officials was "disappointing", says Social Development Minister Anne Tolley.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ.

Report from officials was "disappointing", says Social Development Minister Anne Tolley.

An independent review will be held into a Social Development Ministry IT system after a privacy blunder involving data supplied by charities.

The ministry was last week forced to shut down an information-sharing portal because of a privacy flaw that could have allowed officials from one non-government organisation (NGO) which had a contract with the ministry to view client data supplied by another.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said it was disappointing that a briefing provided by the ministry had raised "more questions than answers" on the security of the system and how it had been overseen. 

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Tolley said it was important clients and providers had confidence that their information was protected.

The independent review will be headed by former Deloitte consultant Murray Jack, who is due to report back by the end of the month on the circumstances that led to the breach.

He will also review "the decisions made on why the portal was used and the security steps taken, as well as the governance and management of the project", Tolley said.

The probe has been welcomed by some critics of the Government's policy to require NGOs to personalise the data they give to the Government, if they want to remain eligible for Government funding. 

But Labour's social development spokeswoman Carmel Sepuloni said it was "too little too late". 

"The Minister is going about this data collection backwards. Her independent review comes after budgeting services have already had data sharing requirements written in to their contracts, and were already compelled to upload the sensitive information onto a faulty data sharing system."

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Public Service Association national organiser Glenn Barclay said the association welcomed the investigation, but it still opposed the policy. 

"However, if the security issues are resolved, this will still not overcome our objections to NGOs being required to provide data on their clients to MSD.

"We are worried that NGOs working with vulnerable families are being asked to share data of such a sensitive nature and not convinced the gains of doing so outweigh the risks."

The review comes the same week the Privacy Commissioner released a scathing report of the Government's plans, calling them intrusive and excessive. 

Commissioner John Edwards said the requirement could have serious and unintended consequences, including some vulnerable people simply providing incorrect information or walking away from a service entirely. 

Tolley had also conceded that an exemption regime would have to be developed, to prevent people who did not want their data shared, walking away from receiving support. 

Prime Minister Bill English has been an enthusiastic proponent of using data-sharing and data analytics to improve the provision of public services, and welfare services in particular, appointing Amy Adams as the first ever minister of "social investment".

The Data Futures Partnership, a government-funded advisory body, has been holding extensive public consultations on the public's attitude to data-sharing.

One of the questions it has been investigating is the extent to which people's acceptance of data-sharing and analytics is influenced by their understanding of the specific benefits that it is expected to deliver.  

 - Stuff

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