Individual control over online identities should not become "collateral damage" or a "necessary casualty" of the government's desire to collect and share data, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff has warned.
Ms Shroff made the comments during her keynote address yesterday at the Identity Conference being held at Te Papa.
She told a packed auditorium that pressure was building in this country for the private sector to have large-scale access to information we make available to the public sector.
That climate has lead to the creation of the Privacy (Information Sharing) Bill, which is currently before Parliament. It will allow more agencies, including medical professionals, social workers, police and civil defence to exchange details about us, with strict controls.
While this held benefits for the individual, such as more targeted services and dealing with less agencies, Ms Shroff said there needed to be more further development of the government's role as a "boundary keeper".
The commission was comfortable with the Information Sharing Bill but would be watching closely to make sure its safeguards were not diluted, she said.
"Government rhetoric is remarkably similar to that in the commercial environment... making services better and smarter... but government rhetoric also talks strongly about striking a balance between intrusion, control, and the right of 'data subjects' or people," she said. "The government has yet to find this balance."
Ms Shroff pointed to a 2009 New Zealand Post survey that raised eyebrows last year when it was revealed by the commission that participants' data was rented out to commercial partners in New Zealand and overseas.
The survey asked a range of questions including names, addresses, preferred petrol station, favourite magazine, mortgage rate, credit card limit and partner's income.
"Whether you think it's a good or bad thing for NZ Post to be collecting and selling this information to marketers, the point is, it's possible and it's happening now," Ms Shroff said.
"What does that mean for all of us individuals? It means at the very least that we must be sceptical, questioning, and must examine our actions, as well as those of government agencies and commercial operators."
There also needed to be more public debate on the issue of online privacy, she said.
"Is all this seamless integration for improved service? Or is it a recipe for soulless loss of control and identity," she asked.
"Our expectations of privacy are one thing, but the reality of how we manage our own identity online is something else...you can't hope to exert any control over how your information is handled unless you have some basic knowledge."
"Public awareness needs to be coupled with public debate. Discussion of benefits and risks will in itself help to keep the people aware and safe."
A Privacy Commission survey in 2010 showed 88 per cent of respondents were worried about children's privacy on the internet and 80 to 90 per cent were concerned about businesses using their personal information.
The commission will release the results of its latest survey tomorrow, which would "intensify" those trends, Ms Shroff said.
The conference concludes tomorrow.
- The Dominion Post