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Working the enquiries line Karin Carter
6 October 2015

Artic Tern

Talking to people about how their personal information is collected, kept, used, and disclosed, and the impact it can have when something goes wrong, has put privacy in a new perspective for me – especially now that I deal with privacy matters every day.

The 12 privacy principles are sensible and practical, but the myriad ways in which privacy issues present themselves in real life can seem endless. This is what I discovered after starting work at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner as an Enquiries Officer several months ago.

Information shared

It has been a steep learning curve. We are often too busy to pay attention to things like the privacy policy on our loyalty card or what personal information we are giving away in order to download a cool, free app. We often only realise what we’ve inadvertently consented to when unsolicited marketing material turns up in our inbox which is based on far more personal information than can be gleaned about us from public sources.

The fact is information can be held about us that we don’t agree with - such as a medical opinion about the state of our mental health - and this can be shared between government agencies or health providers in ways that we might feel is in breach of our privacy. Other people can ‘dob us in’ to organisations like CYF or ACC, and they have a right to have their privacy protected. People need to be able to safely report that they are concerned about the kids next door.

Correction sought

I’ve talked to people unhappy that the Privacy Act doesn’t require that information about them be deleted or changed, if they think it’s wrong. (The Act does provide for individuals to be able to attach a statement of correction that must always be read with the original material).

There are good reasons for this. A specialist’s opinion can be valid even if we don’t agree with it, and for a course of treatment to make sense, a record of the medical opinion may need to remain on file.

Privacy officers

In these cases, it is critical that the organisations involved are sensitive to the concerns of their clients, and work to help them understand both their own and the agency’s rights and responsibilities with regard to personal information.

This is where privacy officers can be a great help. I have been very impressed with those I have spoken to in carrying out my enquiries role. As well as being a legal requirement, it makes good sense for organisations to have privacy officers because they can help stop a complaint from escalating to involve our office, or even prevent a complaint arising.

Privacy doesn’t need to be difficult, but it does need attention and care to be paid to it by individuals and organisations alike. We all need to think about privacy.

Image credit: Arctic tern by James John Audubon

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