Privacy consultation pays off, says researcher

Researcher identifies differing national attitudes to privacy

New Zealand could well be a force for the evolution of a positive attitude on the apparent conflict between privacy interests and the needs of national security, says InternetNZ cyberlaw fellow Cynthia Laberge.

Summarising her year-long research based at Victoria University, Laberge says she has identified marked differences in national attitudes to the privacy/security relationship. In the US, personal security is preserved through privacy; the government and the people are seen in “an us-versus-them situation”.

The US Constitution is set up that way, she says. “Any invasion of privacy by government is looked at with a lot of question and worry.” After all, Watergate is a recent memory for many Americans she points out.

In Europe, people have more of an eye to privacy as a fundamental human right, she says.

Her summary given late last month to a meeting convened by InternetNZ, detailed a number of episodes of friction between European and US authorities, particularly over information requested by the US on European airline passengers. This has been matched, with doubtful effectiveness, with lists of terrorists and profiling tools claimed to be able to predict terrorist inclinations in advance.

Within Europe attitudes vary, with the Germans having released at least one suspected terrorist because of data irregularities in the investigation. The UK is now veering in the opposite direction, with a lenient attitude towards sharing data with other countries, including the US.

“Regardless of what protections are in place domestically, your data is now travelling right around the world,” she says “and it’s not just your travel data; it’s your banking data too.”

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US Treasury sent a subpoena to the Belgium-based international financial messaging service, Swift. “They complied and delivered a lot of data, on the grounds that it was being mirrored on a server in the US.”

New Zealand offers a third path, Laberge says; that of trust in our government, encouraged by reasonable public consultation.

Here, she says, “the people have confidence in government. I think that is where the world is headed; there’s an element of trying to trust our leaders again.

“New Zealand has worked very hard at implementing programmes, trying to get full support for the data matching programs, making sure that things are open.”

Agencies such as the State Services Commission (SSC) “try to come together and make a programme that the people will trust – and I think they work at it very hard and I think they’re unique.

“I don’t see most governments acting that way; it’s either a matter of leading for security purposes or being very civil-rights oriented even at the cost of security. New Zealand tends to walk more of a middle road.

“I think because attention is on New Zealand for other reasons – your tourism industry and your film-making industry and your sports personalities — you have a chance to say something that will get heard.” The idea of a privately-sponsored cyberlaw fellowship is also almost unique to New Zealand Laberge points out. “So you do lead. You’re a smaller nation, but you have a big voice.”

Ironically, one of Laberge’s prime examples of consultative planning, the igovt authentication system, is currently under a financial cloud. This, industry sources say, could reflect a difference between the SSC’s and individual agencies’ views of the way it should be run.

Laberge was questioned at the meeting on the other big aspect of privacy versus security – government interception of communications traffic. She acknowledged information on that front was much harder to come by than information on data matching.

While probing in that direction, she got a telephone message from a representative of the Security Intelligence Service.

“I stewed on that for a while,” she says, then phoned the representative back only to find him unavailable. She left a return message and the contact went no further, she says.

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