Posting revenge photos online could cost villains

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 14/03/2014

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Spitefully sharing embarrassing personal details about your ex-partner could cost you, as privacy protections are pushed further into the home.

A proposed tweak to the law will allow the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for the first time to investigate complaints made against family, friends and even distant acquaintances.

The change is aimed at "revenge" postings, where ex-partners or friends share embarrassing photographs or private details online. It would only apply to the use of "highly offensive" private details.

Assistant Commissioner Katrine Evans said if the changes had been in place last year, the commissioner could have investigated the Roast Busters group, who allegedly had group sex with drunk teenage girls and bragged about it online.

"That is exactly the sort of situation where we want to say, ‘hang on, that's not OK'. At the moment we can't," she said.

An investigation could also eventually lead to compensation for a victim's loss of privacy and orders to remove the offending material.

The proposed changes mark a shift from the commissioner's current role which is limited to "agencies" - such as banks, hospitals or government departments - or people acting on their behalf.

Under the law as it stands, private information obtained through "personal, family and household" cannot even be considered by the commissioner.

For example, a doctor who used his job to access his ex-wife's medical record could be investigated and potentially forced, through the Human Rights Tribunal, to pay compensation. But the commissioner could not investigate the same doctor if he posted intimate photographs of his ex-wife on Facebook.

This exemption extended to friends or distant acquaintances providing they are acting in a personal capacity. In one case, it applied to a person recording their neighbour over the fence via CCTV.

Evans said the commissioner had no business regulating "what families said to each other" but the rise of digital communication meant the current restrictions had led to some unfortunate outcomes.

"The problem comes up when people engage inappropriately online with highly offensive communication," she said.

"The real revenge attacks, the bullying, the nude photo of the ex which is then published to a wide variety of people online."

Privacy lawyer Kathryn Dalziel, of Taylor Shaw, said she often received calls from people wanting to remove hurtful or embarrassing comments or photographs posted on Facebook.

Even if these comments were untrue for most people taking defamation action was too expensive and, because it was a personal matter, complaining to the Privacy Commissioner was a non-starter.

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"That exemption is a real barrier," she said.

The proposal is part of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, currently being considered by Parliament, which is aimed at combating cyber-bullying.

If it passes, cyber-bullying or inciting suicide online would become a criminal offence. A new agency would also be set-up to handle cyber-bullying complaints and order material removed.

- The Dominion Post

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