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Marie Shroff bids farewell to a decade of privacy

Feb 20th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Front Page Layout, Lead Story


LAST Friday, Marie Shroff bid farewell to her role of Privacy Commissioner, a job she has held for the past 10 years.

The privacy commission serves as an independent watchdog for New Zealand, keeping an eye on privacy issues, something which Ms Shroff admits is becoming a more important issue for the general public.

She said this was due to the increasing use of apps, social networking and cloud computing, and increasing awareness of the amount of personal information online.

As well as being the Privacy Commissioner, Ms Shroff has also worked as a journalist and was previously Cabinet Secretary for 16 years.

Since being appointed to the role of Privacy Commissioner in late 2003, Ms Shroff admits the role has changed a lot in the past 10 years.

“There was no Facebook, Google was still developing. This is now the digital century, we weren’t so conscious of that at the start.”

Ms Shroff said that by 2010, people’s attitudes to privacy began to change as they were becoming more aware of how much personal information they were putting online.

This was due to people becoming more and more aware that free or low-cost services like social networking sites and apps were costing their users in other ways.

Instead of taking money, they take personal information and can track user behaviour, which creates profitable databases.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, it’s not a game,”she says.

A particularly busy year for Ms Shroff was 2012, or “the year of the privacy breach”, due to a number of high profile agencies suffering privacy breaches.

Around that time, Government agencies The Earthquake Commission, Accident Compensation Commission and the Ministry of Social Development all suffered privacy leaks.

Ms Shroff was personally involved with the inquiry of the ACC privacy breach, which resulted in 6748 clients’ personal information being accidentally sent to a member of the public.

She said it was a simple matter of human error, and that “how it actually happened was some poor lady clicked the wrong button”.

Ms Shroff saw this as a turning point in privacy in New Zealand, because it changed the way personal information was valued.

Before this data breach, too many companies and government agencies failed to value information as an asset, but have since changed the way they operate to prevent it happening again.

“I would expect things to improve. I feel optimistic that now everybody’s trying to get it right.”

The issue in the past year has seemed to come to a head worldwide, with ‘privacy’ being crowned’s word of the year.

Privacy was on everybody’s mind following the revelations of Edward Snowden and the closer to home issue of the GCSB bill.

The GCSB bill proved a hot topic amongst New Zealanders, as it lead to discussion of the scope of the government’s monitoring abilities.

Ms Shroff wouldn’t give her personal opinion of the bill, but “increased oversight would have been better,” she said.

During her time as Privacy Commissioner, there were three privacy major developments in privacy which Ms Shroff says she takes a great deal of pride in.

The first was the Law Commission’s 2011 review of the Privacy Act, which hadn’t seen an update since 1993.

The review recommended that the Privacy Commissioner be given more direct power to deal with privacy issues by means of compliance notices. Previously commission could only encourage and warn.

The second came in 2012 when New Zealand privacy laws were deemed of a high enough standard and became accepted within the European Union.

This made New Zealand one of only five countries outside the EU to hold this distinction, meaning data can be sent from the EU to New Zealand without any extra controls or regulations.

The final moment Ms Shroff was most proud to be involved in as Privacy Commissioner was the recently launched OWLS programme, which teaches privacy awareness and internet safety in schools.

“If you get people aware about how to protect themselves at school then they’re set for life.”

With the greater use of apps and the rise in the use of cloud computing, Ms Shroff says that privacy issues are becoming more complex.

This, in turn has been met with greater awareness amongst the general public over their privacy, and Ms Shroff has noticed “a big re-assertion of control by the citizen over their information.”

After leaving this position, Ms Shroff is still deciding where she will go to next, but is looking forward to taking a holiday.





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