Govt to relax information sharing restrictions

Privacy Act amended in wake of Law Commission report

In the wake of a Law Commission report on information sharing among government agencies and specific concerns about inadequate sharing of information on child welfare, government has initiated a set of amendments to the Privacy Act to ease some of the restrictions on data sharing in cases of evident need.

The Privacy (Information Sharing) Bill will make sharing easier, but also aims at removing ambiguities about the kind of information that be shared and under what circumstances.

This, says the Bill’s prefacing policy statement, will not only increase certainty for departments, but also for the public.

Uncertainties on the latter front can lead to “failures of security, sharing of inaccurate information and use of information in ways that are not anticipated by the person to whom it relates”, says the policy statement.

This in turn “can lead to increased mistakes, costs and a loss of trust in government”.

“Better and smarter information sharing by agencies delivering public services can lead to more integrated services, reduced duplication and lower information handling costs across government,” according to the statement.

The Law Commission, while readying Stage 4 of its massive report into privacy and the operation of the Privacy Act, was asked to advance publication of its conclusions on data sharing.

These were made available to government in late March, while the bulk of the Stage 4 report did not arrive until this month (Computerworld, August 2).

The new Bill, which takes account of the Law Commission’s work, makes it possible for information sharing agreements between two or more agencies to be approved by Order in Council, following consultation with the Privacy Commissioner.

An agreement can involve a private organisation if it is “lawfully carrying out any public service or public services on behalf of one or more public sector agencies”.

Other people or organisations may be consulted in the course of deciding on an information sharing agreement, but only if requested by the agencies concerned.

There is no provision for general public input.

The new Bill also broadens exemptions to Privacy Principles 10 and 11. These permitted use and disclosure, respectively of personal information outside the Act’s general provisions in case of a “serious” threat to public health or safety or the life or health of an individual. These clauses currently read “serious and imminent”.

Having only just been introduced, the Bill stands little chance of further debate before Parliament rises for the general election.

The Child Youth and Family department, Police and District Health Boards this month separately concluded a memorandum of understanding on cooperation to strengthen protection of children. This will involve some information sharing among the agencies under the present form of the Privacy Act.

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Tags privacy actPrivacy (Information Sharing) BillLaw commission

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