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About us

The meaning of 'privacy'

The word 'privacy' means different things to different people. For example, a right to privacy - depending on who you talk to - can mean:

  • a right to be left alone
  • a right to control who sees information about you, or
  • a right to make decisions about your personal life without government intervention.

The large number of possible meanings for 'privacy' causes confusion.

To make things more difficult still, the value of a right to privacy can vary depending on circumstances, cultural context, time and personal preference.

  • So, people in one country may have a different view from those in another country about whether the government should collect information about citizens.
  • Or we may find it acceptable for the media to publish intimate information about criminals, or politicians, but we may criticise them when they print photographs of ordinary people that we find intrusive.
  • Also, our grandparents probably had different views on privacy than we do - and our children will have different views from us.
  • I may even have different views from my neighbour on what information I'm prepared to share with other people.

These differences create challenges for development of coherent privacy laws.

A common understanding

Despite the difficulties, a common understanding about privacy has emerged, in New Zealand and in many countries overseas. Our laws reflect this common understanding:

  • people need to be able to protect information about themselves
  • people need the opportunity to withdraw - physically or mentally - from society.

Privacy, as defined by this common understanding, is important to ensure that we feel secure. For instance:

  • We become tense when we are constantly under scrutiny.
  • We also often define our relationships with people by what information we choose to share with them. So if we are unable to control who knows information about us, we will feel insecure - at least in part because the boundaries of our relationships become uncertain.
  • Human beings need security to be able to function normally in their social environment.

So privacy, which supports or creates feelings of security, is an important human right. If we feel secure, we're more likely to play a full part in society.

However, although privacy is important, it is not absolute. Other important social interests can be more important than privacy in particular circumstances. All privacy laws make allowances for other social interests such as:

  • preventing crime
  • ensuring safety
  • ensuring that courts get information to make their decisions.

New Zealand's privacy laws

The Privacy Act 1993 is New Zealand's main privacy law. It mostly governs personal information about individual people, though the Privacy Commissioner also has a wider ability to consider developments or actions that affect personal privacy. Most of this website deals with aspects of the Privacy Act.

Completely separately, the courts have developed a privacy tort - that is, one person can sue another for breach of privacy. The most famous privacy tort case is the Court of Appeal's decision in Hosking v Runting.

Broadcasters have to comply with the privacy principles issued by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Many statutes set out specific rules to protect privacy or confidentiality in particular situations. So, for example, Inland Revenue must keep information about tax records secret, except in certain limited circumstances. And intimate covert filming legislation protects people from non-consensual intimate photography.

Conversely, some statutes or other rules dictate that personal information must be disclosed. Privacy is seen as less important than other interests. For example, personal information on the electoral roll is publicly available. It is only in exceptional circumstances (such as threats to safety) that personal details will not appear on the electoral roll.