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Spotlight on privacy

Most of us value the advances in technology that enable us to obtain information on just about anything with a click of a mouse. We can stay in contact with family and friends the world over through email, chat rooms and social networking websites such as Facebook and Bebo. We shop and pay our bills online, check ski conditions on Mount Ruapehu or the surf at Mount Maunganui all from our computers.

What most of us do not realise is that every time we use our credit card, surf the net or download photos we are creating a digital footprint. Alarmingly, a recent study by International Data Corporation (IDC) has revealed that the digital information generated about us on a daily basis (dubbed our "digital shadow"), is now greater than the total information that we actively create ourselves and it is going to continue to increase at a rapid rate.

A great deal of information about us is gathered through surveillance footage without us even realising it. Every time you walk into a department store, bank, petrol station or supermarket you are more than likely being filmed through closed circuit television (CCTV). CCTV is also used on many central city streets; Auckland's Queen Street alone has over 100 cameras operating, not to mention the cameras monitoring Auckland's motorways.

The Privacy Act 1993 requires that a person should be made aware that information is being gathered about them and the purpose for doing so. A Hamilton City nightclub came under scrutiny last year when the use of CCTV footage revealed a patron causing damage. The cameras were located in the nightclub toilets and the patron was not aware he was being filmed as there was no signage indicating that cameras were in use.

The release of the New Zealand edition of Google Street View has also been controversial. It is created from millions of photos taken from cars equipped with cameras that travelled the country taking images of our streets. The result is that anyone with access to the internet can take a virtual walk down your street and view the surroundings. Concerns raised about identification of people and vehicles have been addressed by the blurring of faces and licence plates. There is also a facility to report a concern about a particular image. This may be of small comfort as by the time the image is discovered, the damage could have already been done.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff has identified privacy and data protection as being one of the biggest issues of our time, and warned that the misuse of personal information, identity theft and fraud are all dangers that should not be ignored. In response, the Law Commission is currently undertaking a four stage investigation into privacy issues. Stages one and two were completed in 2008. These stages involved an assessment of privacy values, changes in technology, international trends and implications for New Zealand Law, and consideration of whether the law relating to public registers required systematic alteration. In stage three, the Law Commission will investigate the adequacy of current civil and criminal law in dealing with invasions of privacy. In the final stage, the Law Commission will review the Privacy Act 1993 and make suggestions on how it can be changed.

The Privacy Act itself is often misquoted and misunderstood. If you have any issues regarding the collection, storage, and use of your personal information, please do not hesitate to consult the team at Turner Hopkins for advice.

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