Survey shows increasing privacy concerns

Privacy commissioner's survey shows majority want businesses punished if they misuse personal information

New Zealanders are becoming more concerned about their privacy, according to a survey released by the privacy commissioner to mark Privacy Awareness Week.

In the survey 88 percent of respondents say they want businesses punished if they misuse people’s personal information and 89 percent agreed in some measure with the statement “if a business loses my personal information they should tell me”, with 74 percent registering the strongest possible agreement on a 10-point scale.

The survey indicates an increasing concern over potential abuse of privacy. Asked whether they are more concerned now than they were “a few years” ago, 40 percent of respondents now say yes, with another 58 percent saying their level of concern has remained about the same. The former figure has risen and the latter declined compared with surveys conducted in 2010 and 2008. Only two percent of respondents say they are now less concerned than they were a few years ago.

However, UMR, the firm that conducted the survey, cautions against making a direct comparison with replies to a similar question in previous years – because coincidentally, this year’s survey was done in the wake of the ACC’s inadvertent emailing of a spreadsheet of sensitive personal information about 6,700 claimants to a claimant who was not authorised to see them. The date for the survey was decided before the controversy erupted.

Also, says UMR, the privacy-concern question has been asked specifically this year, where in previous surveys it was only one among a set of eight questions asked at random

The proportion of respondents who say that they would be concerned if they supplied information to a business for one purpose but the business used it for another has fallen over the last two years, from 90 percent to 82 percent.

“Government agencies can also take no comfort from the survey results,” says privacy commissioner Marie Shroff. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents are worried about government silently sharing their personal information. Concern about health sector organisations sharing people’s personal information without telling them nearly doubled from 32 percent to 60 percent. This result may have been influenced by the recent ACC disclosure, says Shroff.

“But there is also some reasonably good news for government and business,” she says. About three-fifths of New Zealanders trust agencies to protect their personal information, with 65 percent trusting business and 68 percent trusting government to handle their personal information well. However, a relatively high proportion of the public are neutral (22 percent about business and 17 percent about government) – many people are effectively withholding their judgment on agencies’ standards of protection of information, Shroff says.

The proportion of the population who use social networking sites is continuing to grow, with 54 percent of the sample now using Facebook. Of these 74 percent say they have changed the privacy settings on their Facebook page. This compares with 66 percent who reported changing their privacy settings on their social networking page in 2010. In the earlier survey several social networking sites were mentioned.

Discomfort with the data gathering and data mining activities of “sites like Google and Facebook” is rising, with 49 percent reporting the highest of five available levels of discomfort about such sites gathering information on what users do and say online and 43 percent showing a similar level of concern about information being gathered to enable targeted advertising.

Privacy Awareness Week is marked at the same time of the year by countries around the Pacific - Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and the US. The NZ Privacy Commissioner’s office organised a day-long forum in Wellington on “privacy in the age of big data", and, in cooperation with Victoria University and the Department of Internal Affairs, a two-day conference on “managing digital identity in a networked world”.

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