Nothing to hide but plenty I don't want to share

I’ve had a number of discussions about online privacy, security and matters of this sort over the past few months.

All too often I’m faced with someone who says “I have nothing to hide” and who seems to be quite willing to put up with government invasion of his or her privacy.

I don’t have anything to hide either, but I do keep some things to myself. I won’t list them but trust me, they’re better off being conducted behind closed doors with the lights off.

On top of that, I have other things I like to keep private. My financial matters are nobody’s business but mine and the bank’s. My health records are likewise quite important to me. Which books I get out of the library, where I spend my money, who I call and TXT.

As a former journalist the recent spate of attacks on a reporter’s freedom to do their job irks me. All too often I hear from readers (or viewers) bemoaning the state of journalism in New Zealand and I tend to agree. Today I met with an old colleague and we talked about how many of us there were at Computerworld in its heyday. We had 11 journalists working on a niche publication – other newsrooms had far more. Today, the newsrooms have shrunk dramatically, the pay rates are stagnant and each reporter is expected to churn out more copy with less time to do it properly.

The one thing a journalist has in his or her favour is the ability to ask questions and to get answers from people who may not want their names splashed about the place. Journalists need access and they need privacy in order to secure the news that quite often someone doesn’t want you to know about.

Journalism comes in for a lot of flak for its invasive, intrusive nature and rightly so. I managed to avoid ever having to ask “How do you feel” or its bedmate, “Will you apologise?” but there are plenty of journalists who employ such phrases and far worse. I know of at least one who likes to goad interview subjects to the point of cracking in order to get a more salacious story and several have been known to deploy much worse tactics in order to secure a scoop.

But “keeping the bastards honest” is at the heart of any good journalist’s role. “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” is one of my favourite definitions of the job of journalist (and check out the link to see who said it - oh the irony), but in this case perhaps there’s a better one: “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

It’s vital we have a strong media that can ask questions that someone somewhere doesn’t want answered. My hat is off to the likes of Lisa Owen at TVNZ who once served her own organisation with an Official Information Act request and to Andrea Vance who got the government’s report into the GCSB ahead of time and ran a story exposing the information before the government spin doctors had all their ducks in a row.

That’s why privacy, security and our right to know are inextricably linked. That’s why it’s important we understand how well the government handles our data, and what limits are put in place, and why it’s important we understand the GCSB and associated legislation.

These laws give the government security agencies unprecedented powers of access to our daily lives. I may not have anything to hide, but I have plenty I don’t want to share and if I do, I want to know it will be handled with all due care and diligence.

Unfortunately, the government (in various guises) does not have a good track record on this score. Take a look at this list and then tell me – do you think we should give the government agencies more access to our data?

July 2012 - Immigration privacy breach results in staff being fired

March 2012 – ACC spreadsheet debacle

October 2012 – MSD kiosk debacle

November 2012 – Immigration privacy breach

November 2012 – Novopay sends wrong information to multiple schools

December 2012 – Corrections faxes sensitive data to removals company

March 2013 -  Ministry of Environment email breach

April 2013 – EQC privacy breach twice

April 2013 – IRD privacy breach

April 2013 – Ministry of Justice security flaw revealed (and a note from IITP about white hat hackers)

April 2013 - GCSB “Kitteridge report” leaked

May 2013 – WINZ privacy breach 

June 2013 – Peter Dunne resigns

July 2013 – Journalists described as “subversion” threat to New Zealand Defence Force

July 2013 – Andrea Vance’s access records handed to PM’s investigator

July 2013 – Andrea Vance’s phone records handed to PM’s investigator (and here's a very good time line of events from Dylan)

August 2013 – Govt admits SIS has a “special protocol” for spying on journalists

Sundry other “minor” breaches that involved only one or two people's private information.

The Privacy Commissioner's annual report last year includes this quote from Marie Schroff and it's worth repeating here: 

"The public sector can't afford to be complacent. It's quite clear that agencies holding large amounts of personal information need to place greater value on that information asset.
"They need to develop strong leadership and a culture of respect for privacy, as well as day to day policies and practices to provide trustworthy stewardship of our personal information at every level of the organisation.
"There has been far too little focus on the fact that there are real people behind the masses of information that government agencies hold."