How much privacy can we expect?

16:00, Mar 16 2012

No-one likes having to make the walk of shame, be it a batsman stalking off the pitch after going out for a duck, a dishevelled reveller slinking back home after a night on the tiles or the head of ACC going in to see the privacy commissioner after his organisation mistakenly sent details of thousands of case files to the wrong recipient by email.

While the cricketer might get no worse than a bruised ego and the reveller some humorous derision, the senior public servant gets on telly and the headlines bay for blood and scream for reviews and inquiries.

Of course, many of those who have had their privacy breached will want compensation for hurt, humiliation or mental torment. Now if you've had to have an HIV test after sleeping with an Aids-diagnosed Casanova I can see some argument for expecting a payout, but if your case number and name were sent somewhere with thousands of others I reckon you should probably just harden up and forgive the faceless public servant who pushed the wrong button with no malicious intent.

But building bridges and getting over things is a characteristic in short supply these days. Take the potentially redundant Ports of Auckland worker who is crying foul over details of the very generous leave provisions he received from the company during the terminal illness of his wife.

While manning a picket line that often features banners talking about the needs of families and belonging to a union that has made a YouTube video featuring strikers' kin, this individual and CTU boss Helen Kelly are outraged that someone in the company chose to leak some balancing facts into what they see as an emotive dispute.

In real terms I wonder just what damage has been done to this man. His wife's illness and death is clearly no secret and certainly his fellow workers and friends would have known that he needed, and was granted, time off to deal with a traumatic experience.

The fact that the company leak may have technically breached parts of the Privacy Act shouldn't inevitably lead to a prosecution or compensation. Clearly having put their families at the forefront of their public relations push MUNZ can hardly be surprised if the port's bosses and their spin doctors reply in kind.

In a wider context I wonder just how much privacy we can really expect in a world where more New Zealanders interact on Facebook than face to face.

A poll out this week analysing how Kiwis spend their leisure time suggests getting on line in our downtime is about the only activity that is on the rise while actual social interaction with friends and family, going to the movies, seeing an art exhibition or attending a sports match have all declined in the past decade.

While most of us can log on in the privacy of our own home the fact is that when we are chatting on Facebook, searching Google or Skyping, someone somewhere is monitoring our every keystroke. Access to much of cyberspace is free which, of course, means if we are not the paying customer we and the keystrokes we make are the product and it would be naive to think that our privacy can be guaranteed.

Not that things are much better if you venture outside into the real world.

Most major cities are peppered with surveillance cameras, taxis video you and record your conversations and as the prime minister well knows, even having a cuppa with a friend in a cafe can end up on the front page.

Everyone's phones are now cameras and who knows what the person next to you on the bus or train is tweeting about your behaviour.

In short it seems there is precious little virtual or real privacy left in the modern world. Most of us don't want to live like hermits in a cave, so that is a reality we must learn to live with.

I am not suggesting agencies of state don't have a responsibility to keep the information we give them confidential but in the context of this surveillance society we shouldn't blow their minor transgressions out of proportion.

No-one likes taking the walk of shame and we would all like to keep our private failings under wraps, but maybe in this age when our privacy is breached we just need to shrug and keep walking.