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Minister in breach of privacy laws?

By Steven | July 28, 2009

Did Paula Bennett’s release of her critics’ benefit details breach privacy laws? My VUW law school colleague Dr Nicole Moreham thinks it might have.

UPDATE: Paula Bennett was squirming under Mary Wilson’s skewer on Checkpoint last night, simultaneously trying to insist that she had done the right thing in “getting the facts out there” and also that she sympathised with the beneficiaries wouldn’t make a habit of releasing information like this.

Charles Chauvel said on Morning Report this morning that the information released may not have been complete, and may have overstated what the beneficiaries were being paid, which would provide another ground of complaint. (Under Information Privacy Principle 8, information should be checked for accuracy and completeness before use where appropriate. The other issues seem to revolve around potential breaches of IPPs 10 and 11, the use and disclosure of information for a purpose other than that for which it was collected).

Chauvel managed to dodge a fairly chummy question from Sean about whether the usual method was to leak this sort of information to journalists. Colin Espiner reported yesterday that Labour used to do this often. If so, I have to say, that is just as much a breach of the Privacy Act (and potential infringement of the tort) as doing it openly as Paula Bennett did.

Privacy expert John Edwards was also on Morning Report and made a couple of interesting comments. First, he thought that the Privacy Act provisions may be wide enough to permit the Minister’s release, though he didn’t go into detail. He added that it was a separate question whether we might think it was the right thing for her to do. He also wondered just exactly how releasing this personal information really did add to the debate (which, after all, was about the decision to axe tertiary study assistance allowance). 

David Farrar makes the case that the information released by the Minister was relevant to the debate. He also argues that the beneficiaries had “opened the door” by themselves putting large amounts of personal information into the public domain. (One legal consequence of this may be that any harm they might suffer from the Minister’s release adds little to the privacy loss they’ve voluntarily surrendered. A complaint under the Privacy Act requires the complainant to show a breach of the Privacy Principles and something else – a degree of particular harm arising from that breach. This seems to be the point made by government about the Privacy Commissioner’s guidelines that support the release. But David seems mostly to be making a sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander argument, which isn’t really about minimal-extra-harm. Sauce-for-the-goose isn’t a reason under the Act for releasing private information, though at a big stretch it may support an argument that the beneficiaries impliedly authorised the release of extra details.)

Topics: Privacy Act, Privacy tort | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Minister in breach of privacy laws?”

  1. FletcherB Says:
    July 29th, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I saw (I think) the privacy commissioner themselves on TV last night saying that Jenny Shipley got off a similar charge of “disclosure of information for a purpose other than that for which it was collected”, by saying public release WAS the purpose for which she collected the information.

    ie… She applied the term not to why the department collected info from clients, but why the minister collected info from the department.

    Is the wording of the law really that loose? (It’s obviously not what was intended when writing the law, surely?)

  2. Steven Says:
    July 29th, 2009 at 11:55 am

    No. The information is plainly collected for the purpose of administering benefits. That’s the purpose that guides later uses of the information. You can’t get around that purpose by inventing another later purpose for asking for that information.


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