Who hasn't heard of the Privacy Act?
It's another of those statutory interventions in life as we used to know it. Yet it's not all that it may seem or might be expected to be. Most often we hear it quoted by insurers, banks and a host of councils and public offices, as the reason that they will not answer a simple question.
If I ring a friend at his place of work, to be told he's not there today, and I ask his cell phone number, they may not tell me; but they will give me his email. Really what's the difference? In my business I have money for a client and instructions to repay a finance company, I even have signed authority, but they won't give me the account.
We hear horror stories of parents whose child has a problem at school, and they cannot be told because of privacy; but they'll certainly be told and expected to do something about it if the child is a problem. It's a curious confusion of privacy, political correctness and human rights and what have they in common? All are lame excuses for failure of responsibility and public duty.
So what is the Privacy Act and why? It was a political response to the fears of human rights activists and advocates, as more private information was loaded on public registers and data bases, and as we came to be known rather by numbers than by name. Incidentally we now have to identify ourselves by quoting mother's maiden name and date of birth (and how secure is that?) for access to our own information.
It's a long and complex Act of 133 sections plus schedules. It applies to agencies (including individuals) in the public sector, which is defined, or the private sector, which is not. They are allowed to collect and hold information related to their function, and must not disclose it but with so many exceptions, that the whole thing is questionable and not much use. It doesn't stop the misuse of computers and careless or wrongful release or publication of tax and ACC files.
Then we have the Official Information Act, which requires those same public agencies to release information about public and private matters.
My friend Mark gently observes all we need is a Commonsense Act.
Now we have the internet and nothing is private or sacred or effectively suppressed. There are no laws to stop gossip, and some philosophies deny any moral base for human behaviour.
John Tripe is principal with the Wanganui legal firm of Jack Riddet Tripe.