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Government agencies made nearly 12,000 requests for personal information from 10 New Zealand companies last year, according to a new Office of the Privacy Commissioner report.

The 10 companies that contributed to the Office’s trial transparency reporting programme came from the financial services, communications and utilities sectors.

Over the trial period from August to October 2015, the participant companies received 11,799 requests for their customers’ information. Of these requests, the companies complied with 11,349 requests and declined 449 requests.

The five government agencies which made the most requests were Inland Revenue (4,670 requests); Police (3,513 requests); Ministry of Social Development (3,150 requests); Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (99 requests); and the New Zealand Customs Service (73 requests).

What is transparency reporting?

Transparency reporting is a way to help the public, policy makers and law makers make decisions about the right balance between surveillance powers and individual privacy.

It is also a way for companies to be open with consumers about the limits of confidentiality, by revealing the extent that they cooperate with government agencies. Transparency reporting provides some insight into how law enforcement, intelligence and revenue-gathering agencies use their coercive powers to obtain personal information.

The Office embarked on its transparency reporting programme because it believed there are potential benefits to promoting and protecting individual privacy through the use of transparency reporting. It intends to continue with the programme in 2016.

Information gathering powers

The most frequently cited information gathering powers used by government agencies were:

  • section 17 of the Tax Administration Act 1994 (4,470 requests);
  • section 11 of the Social Security Act 1964 (3,108 requests);
  • production orders under section 71 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 (962 requests). 

The remaining requests were complied with without compulsion or an express statutory power. The companies in the trial most commonly cited:

  • Principle 11(e) of the Privacy Act (1053 requests);
  • Principle 11 (f) of the Privacy Act (1,020 requests).

Some conclusions

It is important to acknowledge that companies that comply with information requests are fulfilling an essential corporate duty. Government agencies rely on this information to carry out a wide range of legitimate actions, such as fraud detection and crime investigation.

Feedback from the private sector about this trial has been favourable because businesses see it as an opportunity to foster greater consumer trust and better understand the effect of information requests on their business.

The findings of the Office’s transparency reporting trial indicate that companies want advice about how to responsibly publish public transparency reports and the legal implications of responding to government information requests.

A copy of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s Transparency Reporting Trial Full Report, can be viewed here.

For more information, contact Charles Mabbett on 021 509 735.