Friday, May 13, 2022

Stats NZ's contempt for privacy, transparency, democracy, and parliament

The Governance and Administration Committee reported back on the Data and Statistics Bill on Monday. The bill ought to have been boring, but Stats NZ's move to a "collect it all" posture indistinguishable from that of the NSA, combined with enhanced secrecy, caused significant concerns from the Privacy Commissioner, Ombudsman, a former chief statistician, and the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties. The latter were shocked that a bill making such major changes to the way statistics would be collected had not received any privacy impacy analysis, so they sought to use the Official Information Act to understand the reasons why, so as to inform their submission to the select committee. But rather than comply with the Act, Stats NZ extended the request until after the committee's report-back date. When this - and the impact on the NZCCL's ability to "effective[ly] participation in the making and administration of laws and policies" - was pointed out to them, they basicly said "fuck you". When they eventually released the information - after the committee had reported, so it could not impact the report - it turned out that their thinking on the issue was rather shallow:

Stats NZ did not consider a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) to be necessary, as while the Bill modernises the Statistics Act 1975 to reflect current practice, it does so while essentially maintaining the confidentiality and privacy requirements of the 1975 Act.


Because Stats NZ did not intend to produce a PIA during the development stages of the Bill, no such correspondence, briefings, advice, aide-memoires, notes, minutes or any other record exists about the production of a PIA, including advice, decisions, or reasons why a PIA was not produced

Yes, really: they proposed a bill which basicly breaks every privacy promise the government has ever made to us (by allowing unlimited transfers of personal information to Stats NZ, over-riding every use-clause and Privacy Act disclaimer attached to that information), and which turns one of our most trusted agencies into a dirty data laundry, and they thought it was so uncontroversial they didn't even consider doing a privacy assessment. Which is an appalling example of siloed thinking, and exactly why Stats needs external oversight in this area (and on that front, note that their vaunted "data ethics advisory panel", which is supposed to oversee this sort of thing, hasn't met for a year). No wonder they wanted to hide that from the committee.

As for the decision to hide it, yes, its another fine example of Labour's "most open and transparent government ever", but its worse, because it was done deliberately to interfere with the select committee process. And the latter seems to come very close to "preventing, or hindering a witness from giving evidence, or giving evidence in full, to the House or a committee" - which is contempt of Parliament. The question now is whether the committee is happy effectively being mushroomed by the public service, or whether they intend to do anything about it.