Stacey Kirk: Government's personal data collection drive a political dead horse video

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley is pushing for the next stage in the Government's "investment approach" - the ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley is pushing for the next stage in the Government's "investment approach" - the brainchild of Prime Minister Bill English. It would see funding for NGOs supporting vulnerable people, hinge on them handing over their clients' details at an individualised level.

OPINION: Has your husband been beating you? Please circle: yes, no. 

Please describe the nature of your injuries, and what support have you received or been offered.  

And finally, what is your name, address and ethnicity? How many children do you have and what's the age of your youngest? 

RNZ Checkpoint

The IT system for receiving private client information at the Ministry of Social Development has been shut down after a privacy breach, the second in the past month.

​Very good.

READ MORE:
MSD says IT system not up to standard after privacy breaches
* Privacy Commissioner has slammed Social Development data collection plans as too intrusive
Privacy Commissioner wants big fines for privacy breaches

 

After careful consideration, the Ministry of Social Development has decided to approve funding for your support organisation for another year, and we regret to inform you your personal details were kept in a folder that was accessible by other organisations and individuals. 

Apologies for any harm or inconvenience this may have caused. 

It's a bit rich to expect anyone to trust the Government with personal information, if a controversial policy to collect that data encounters a near privacy breach before it's barely gotten off the ground. 

Of course, Minister Anne Tolley is aware of that, which is why she's ordered the Ministry of Social Development to build a brand new IT system to cope with the Government order.

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That order is for non-government agencies (NGOs) to personalise the data they give to the Government, if they want to be eligible for Government funding. 

We're talking agencies like Women's Refuge and Rape Crisis. 

Her admission that a major privacy breach of highly-individualised and personal data was only narrowly averted, put a foot slightly ahead of a Privacy Commissioner's report that the plans were heavy-handed, ill thought-out and "disproportionate". 

Tolley has also hinted that the skate with transparency was an "employment matter". That suggests it was human error, which undermined her plans, rather than the systems themselves. 

Nevertheless, new systems need to be built to minimise the chance of human error and to salvage any semblance of a politically workable policy at the end. 

Tolley says she is, rightly, furious. 

She's got to sell a plan to deprive funding of organisations, that are working to help New Zealand's most vulnerable, if they don't hand over their clients' personal and individualised data. 

It's come up against backlash from nearly all quarters, a Privacy Commissioner's report slamming it as unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental to the provision of those services, and what do you know? A near privacy breach. 

And now Tolley is in the position where she's had to further concede ground that an exemption for organisations, where their clients are threatening to walk away from help rather than comply, will likely need to be hashed out. 

This is part of the Government's investment approach - targeting funds where they're needed the most, based on extreme data and evidence. It's been successful and done much good in a lot of areas, within welfare, health and education. 

But it has limits. And as the minister of the portfolios where it's most applied, Tolley is acutely aware of them. The way in which she shut down officials' misguided plans two years ago, to test a "predictive modelling tool", was swift and decisive. 

It attempted to predict abuse, welfare dependency and the likelihood of a child's downward spiral into crime on the path to adulthood so it could better target spending.

But Tolley was advised her officials sought ethical approval for a study that involved risk-rating a group of newborns and not intervening in high-risk cases, to check whether their predictions came true, she was again furious. 

Arguably the experiment may have lead to a greater good, but the price was never an acceptable one to pay. 

The risk of release of any of these people's data into the wrong hands isn't either. The point of it is to make sure the right people are receiving the right help, which is laudable.

A shame it's been undermined to near pointlessness. 

 - Sunday Star Times

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