Hide: Your government is spying on you

The Privacy Commissioner reports the big three that ask for information are the Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Social Development and police. These three departments issued 11,333 information requests to just 10 companies – two telcos, seven financial services companies and one utility.

The Privacy Commissioner found ” virtually 100 per cent” compliance. The only non-compliance was when the individuals concerned weren’t customers – so the companies didn’t have the information.

The police need a warrant for the bulk of the requests they make. Thanks to powers given by Parliament, the IRD and Social Development don’t. We’re not talking information about gun-toting, murdering terrorists but everyday taxpayers and beneficiaries.

In 2012, the IRD served Trade Me with a notice demanding the details of nearly one million customers. To Trade Me’s great credit it resisted the demand and after much to-ing and fro-ing provided information on 44,368 customers. That’s still an astonishing number.

It is worrying there were more than 11,000 requests on just 10 sampled companies over three months – but consider this: the IRD’s request for personal data on one million customers would count as just one request.

Our personal information is being hoovered up by Government agencies on a massive scale. And there is no obligation on the companies or Government departments to tell us.

Last year, there was a great ballyhoo about our spy agencies undertaking “mass surveillance”.

The concern was laudable but misdirected. The mass surveillance is already under way and it’s not our spy agencies but the IRD and MSD.

The Privacy Commissioner shows companies are all too ready to hand over information even when they are not legally obligated to do so.

Government departments have used the companies you shop, bank and trade with to gather your personal information. And you don’t know what they have or why. You can’t escape their net.

You can choose not to be on a benefit but you can’t choose not to be a taxpayer.

I have found it amazing that, in the past, people with search warrants, huge debts to the taxpayer and other problems, could just leave the country because there was no information sharing between government departments.

Similarly, I want the IRD to have the power to look at anything they have a genuine interest in.

Individual cases and mistakes aside, there is a concern when private companies are handing over data, sometimes in huge quantities, without a search warrant.? By all means, government must be able to deal with those that break the law. But the protections should exist that prevent organisations like the IRD from going on fishing expeditions.

However, much I would personally like to turn some people’s data inside out to see what’s there, simply because I think there will be something there, we must first have a genuine suspicion, and that’s where the search warrant comes in.

Data is interesting.? Imagine being a junkie, or a drunk, and you have committed to staying sober as part of your social contract with society. In exchange you receive medical care, support and even cold hard cash to live on.? If we could monitor this person’s spending, then excessive use of cash, or the appearance of alcohol purchases or precursors to some home bake, would set off immediate alarms. We’re not at that stage yet, but I could see a future where court-ordered “data traps” may be set to ensure your spending doesn’t trigger any major red flags.

Of course, we willingly give all this information away to all sorts of loyalty systems. Imagine them emailing your doctor when your sugar or fat in your supermarket trolley exceeds some threshold for a number of weeks in a row?

Data itself is neither good or bad. ?The ability to look and share it with others, however, needs to be under the control of the individual the data is about – with the exception of cases where a judge has ordered your privacy to be violated for what s/he thinks is a reasonable case.


– Rodney Hide, NZ Herald