The word 'privacy' means different things to different people. For example, a right to privacy - depending on who you talk to - can mean:
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.
These differences create challenges for development of coherent privacy laws.
Despite the difficulties, a common understanding about privacy has emerged, in New Zealand and in many countries overseas. Our laws reflect this common understanding:
Privacy, as defined by this common understanding, is important to ensure that we feel secure. For instance:
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:
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.