Big Brother turned up in New Zealand in 1976, when the National Law Enforcement Data Base - better known as The Wanganui Computer - began operations. It enabled police, land transport and justice-system officials to share information for the first time, recording car and gun licences, all traffic and criminal convictions and the personal details of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders.
Important questions were raised about the ease with which the state would be enabled to gather information on its citizens. Civil libertarians saw this as a sinister development, akin to something from George Orwell's 1984.
Some 30 years later, when the files were shifted to a new system in Auckland, Police Deputy Commissioner Lyn Provost recalled the furore with a hint of bemusement. "Now we just presume information will be stored on computers," she said.
Indeed we do. We also trust the officials who collect and store the information to ensure it is made available only to those who are authorised to see it. Increasingly, we are finding that trust is misplaced.
The latest outrage is that the personal data of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders could be accessed at Work and Income New Zealand's public kiosks, set up to allow clients to search job listings, create CVs, apply for jobs and make appointments.
A "mortified" Social Development Minister Paula Bennett stated the obvious when she said the breach should not have happened and the ministry had to make sure it could assure the public of the integrity of the system. Alas, her own attitudes to privacy are cavalier. She disagreed when the Director of the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, Robert Hesketh, told her she had breached the privacy of Natasha Fuller by releasing details of Ms Fuller's benefit. She did not rule out doing the same thing again.
Prime Minister John Key said Winz's failure to protect sensitive information was being taken "very seriously". Yet he approved of Ms Bennett's actions in the Fuller case.
We are told all government agencies with computer systems that can be used by the public will be checked to ensure against further privacy breaches. That's welcome. So, too, would be an overhaul of ministerial attitudes to privacy.
- © Fairfax NZ News