Hunt for the missing link

04:35, Feb 27 2013
Olive McRae
Studylink has lost Olive McRae's file.

Ministry of Social Development agency Studylink has lost Dunedin beneficiary advocate Olive McRae's file after sending it to the wrong address.

A livid McRae has lodged a formal complaint with the Privacy Commissioner, and called for a complete audit of privacy issues at the ministry and agencies.

McRae requested her file on October 14. At the end of January, she contacted Studylink to find out when it would be sent.

However, Studylink did not tell her the file had been mistakenly mailed to her previous address last November. Studylink first sent a staff member and then the courier company which had delivered it, to the address to try and find it.

McRae was not advised until February 17.

The file contained private information, including formal identification documents such as McRae's birth certificate and her bank account number. It is still missing.


Her concern stemmed from a string of MSD privacy breaches where client information was at risk. The latest was the discovery self-service kiosks for MSD clients in Community Link offices were not secure.

McRae was particularly concerned about privacy breaches out of Dunedin MSD agencies and believed the open plan design of the offices breached clients' privacy.

Clients could hear conversations between case managers and clients. McRae had overheard staff discussing clients - sometimes in an offensive manner - when at Dunedin Community Link.

The High Court has been hearing an appeal after Dunedin beneficiary Gordon Holmes was awarded $17,000 by the Human Rights Review Tribunal for two separate MSD privacy breaches.

In its decision, the tribunal ordered a review of the way MSD handled privacy act requests.

It voiced "real concerns" about the way Dunedin branches complied with the Privacy Act, saying breaches were not isolated and were "sustained and systemic".

MSD's deputy chief executive Iona Holsted said the ministry apologised unreservedly to McRae for the failure. Its mistake had initiated a change in the way its agencies treated file requests. "In future, we will arrange for clients to collect their files in person from their nearest office on presentation of appropriate identification."

She said as soon as Studylink became aware McRae had not received her file it took steps to find it.

"We have also arranged for Olive to receive the information that she requested."

Holsted said the Human Rights Review Tribunal assertion the ministry had a systemic problem in terms of compliance with the Privacy Act was being challenged in the High Court.

Work and Income service centres and Community Links are open plan for safety reasons, but clients could request a private meeting room, she said.

D Scene