EQC 'can provide leaked information'

06:44, Apr 12 2013

The Earthquake Commission says it can provide customers with all the information in its notorious leaked email, except what customers really want - the cost estimate of damage.

The leak, an EQC email containing details about 83,000 Christchurch properties damaged by the earthquakes, was posted on an overseas website last night.

A crucial detail contained in the email is an EQC estimate of the cost of damage to the property. The estimate was prepared before the property's file was sent to Fletcher EQR so EQR could start the repair process.

EQC had been sending all the cost estimate information to customers who requested it after the contract for repairs to their house had been awarded or who had been cash-settled, EQC chief executive Ian Simpson said today.

''For customers still awaiting repairs, EQC can provide all information of the sort in the spreadsheet except cost estimates.''

EQC was unhappy about the deliberate release of its confidential information, but the bulk of it was already known to customers whose repairs were complete or under way, he said.

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Simpson said the High Court had confirmed today that its orders still stood, and the polic were being kept abreast of the latest developments.

''However, while the release of addresses and claim numbers was a concern due to the wilful breach of those customers' privacy, most of the information released would have been the subject of conversation between the homeowner and the contract site supervisor when homes were being scoped for repairs,'' he said.

''Information such as start dates for work, if they have been decided, or whether a house was one of the 144 houses awaiting testing for asbestos, will already be known by customers.''

The spreadsheet contained no information having a direct impact on customers' entitlements, Simpson said.

''Our concern was, and remains, that the information about our estimates of repair costs allows contractors tendering for repair work to quote at the estimate level, rather than providing their most competitive market price,'' he said.

''If this were to happen on a widespread basis, it would increase the overall cost of the Canterbury repair to the taxpayer.''

The police have yet to receive a complaint from the Earthquake Commission about the blogger who arranged for an overseas website to divulge the confidential EQC leak.

Police said today they were aware of the website and "will assess any possible action in due course''.  
 
"However, at this stage police have not received a formal complaint from EQC in relation to the matter,'' a spokesman said.
 
The police are still assessing a complaint laid by EQC last month about Christchurch businessman Bryan Staples, of Earthquake Services, who received the email accidentally sent by a senior EQC manager.
 
Staples told The Press today that Christchurch residents who had cash-settled their claims should be most interested in the email.

EQC has cash-settled claims under $15,000 and also cash-settles opt-out claims.

Staples said the "cash-settled''  property owners would benefit most by seeing what EQC's confidential estimate was before the settlement took place.
 
"They will be able to see if they got a fair settlement or whether EQC played hardball and screwed the estimated amount down,'' he said.

EQC has said the information was commercially sensitive and must be kept from potential contractors.

On Tuesday, the High Court in Wellington ordered unnamed parties to desist from disclosing information from the email. A full hearing to prolong the injunction will be held in a few weeks.

University of Canterbury law professor Ursula Cheer told Radio New Zealand this morning the injunction issued by the High Court to suppression the email may be able to be challenged.

"There is a defence to breach of confidence of public interest, and of course Mr Staples and this blogger are arguing that there is a public interest in people getting this information."

Earlier, prominent Auckland lawyer Mai Chen said EQC may be powerless to stop private information from the leaked email spreading through social media.

 Chen said EQC could try to stop the spread under an existing interim injunction or by seeking a new order.

However, EQC would run up against the "limits of the law" in trying to get a practical outcome, she said.

Chen said that if individuals "willfully disregard the law", then EQC could have to sue "potentially dozens or hundreds of people" for breach of confidence or contempt of court.

"The problem is, sooner or later if the information is distributed widely enough, it will lose its confidential character, and at that point EQC will no longer be able to enforce confidentiality."

Chen could not say whether that point had been reached already. "All I can say is that the blogger's put it up, so it's out there."

Meanwhile, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says a wide-ranging review of government agencies' handling of private data may be warranted to restore public confidence after a string of major privacy breaches.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has said he is considering a review after a major investigation into the Bronwyn Pullar ACC privacy breach last year.

Despite a string of major incidents at the Ministry of Social Development, Inland Revenue and, most recently, EQC, Rennie has said little more about the idea.

Yesterday, EQC spokesman Richard Braddell said the commission was considering its legal options, but no decisions had been made.

"We've already referred this matter to the police and it's also with the High Court," he said.

The commission had expected the court order would be obeyed, Braddell said.

Accessing the information on the overseas website may not be quite as straightforward as many hoped.

The blogger said the document was a ‘‘mammoth’’ one that would take ‘‘forever to download’’.

People searching for their details would need claim numbers as addresses had been removed.

‘‘I wish to remind everyone that neither EQC nor the government exists to look after you,’’ he said.

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