September 22, 2023


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How a law change six years in the making changes the way the state collects data about us

11 min read


In August 2020, officers at Stats NZ fulfilled with the New Zealand Security and Intelligence Companies (NZSIS), the company dependable for national stability.

They had been conversing about details: How it could be employed ethically, and how greatest to converse the gains of its increased use.

During the meeting, an NZSIS formal requested whether or not they ought to hold out until they had a “more robust ethics framework” in place before chatting publicly about the agency’s escalating use of facts.

“It was not felt this was necessary,” notes from the assembly read.

“The full NZ governing administration strategy to knowledge ethics has been about transparency and warming the community up little by little to in which we are at – none of our governing administration mechanisms to address details difficulties and ethics were being functioning in a mature capacity still.”

The wording troubled the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (NZCCL), which attained the assembly notes by means of the Official Info Act.

It sounded like Stats NZ – the agency tasked with overseeing the Government’s knowledge colossus, like the ever-growing Built-in Knowledge Infrastructure (IDI), which holds private facts on practically each individual New Zealand resident – was making an attempt to shape general public view warm them up.

“We were stunned when we go through these notes, and imagine this manipulation is harmful of general public rely on in the Governing administration Statistician and Stats New Zealand,” the group said previous week.

(Dr Craig Jones, the deputy Authorities Statistician – who was at the assembly – mentioned he personally would not explain the Government’s method that way).

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The anecdote highlights concerns there is a yawning gap concerning the government’s ravenous urge for food for data, and the evidently lower general public awareness that is the case.

Around the last decade, details has turn into central to the machinery of federal government – it guides coverage, styles the shipping of general public solutions, and has even been utilised in styles to forecast the future conduct of citizens.

Its treasure trove is the IDI, which contains tens of tens of millions of documents on person citizens and is presided over by Stats NZ. Even though it is extensively recognised inside of the authorities, surveys demonstrate tiny public awareness of the extent to which private details is gathered and shared.

Considerably of this knowledge is administrative, meaning it was collected by individual government businesses and shared with Stats NZ through voluntary agreements. The facts was not collected for statistical investigation, but is more and more currently being applied that way – the Fairness Index, which will change the decile system for funding educational institutions, is developed on extensive amounts of personal information about the residence lives of little ones and their households.

The legislation enabling this information collection passed in 1975, and it emphasises the production of “official statistics” – all those essential to the features of govt – making use of statistical surveys, this kind of as the census.

It presents the Govt Statistician electrical power to compel people today to participate in statistical surveys, but there is no this sort of power for administrative information. To get that information, Stats NZ depends on voluntary agreements, which “can acquire sustained energy more than several years”, the agency has reported.

With this challenge in brain, in 2016, do the job started on the Facts and Studies Bill, which is in the remaining stages of its journey by means of Parliament.

It has been unanimously supported across Parliament, but a late surge of exterior criticism has put tension on officials to make key improvements in the law.

The monthly bill experienced been opposed since its inception by the NZCCL. It has due to the fact been joined by Transparency Global, which mentioned it was “a phase backwards for transparent and open up federal government,” Anne Tolley, the organisation’s chairwoman and a previous governing administration minister, claimed in a statement.

Former primary minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer told RNZ it lifted constitutional concerns. Previous Authorities Statistician Len Cook has identified as for it to be thrown out. The Library and Details Association, which represents librarians and information pros, claimed it showed New Zealand “has gone backwards in comprehension and mitigating threats of obtain to this type of data”.

Critics have pointed to rules in Australia and the United kingdom that put stricter limitations on govt data sharing, saying this invoice does the opposite.

The IDI has likely delivered many millions of dollars worth of savings to the government by better targeting spending.

Ella Bates-Hermans/Things

The IDI has possible delivered a lot of thousands and thousands of pounds well worth of price savings to the government by much better concentrating on paying.

What’s the problem?

The govt insists the invoice is not about pushing for additional powers to collect knowledge.

“It’s retaining the laws up to play with modern day techniques,” claims Craig Jones, from Stats NZ.

“It’s not about popular facts sharing involving agencies – it doesn’t do that. It is definitely about a one-way transfer of information from other agencies and entities to Studies NZ for the generation of formal figures and for analysis.”

In a statement, Minister of Figures Dr David Clark explained its intent was to give Stats NZ better oversight of governing administration stats.

“To be obvious, the invoice is about the way Stats NZ collects facts for statistics and analysis. It does not increase the scope of information gathering throughout other government companies, nor does it give Stats NZ sole control more than the details collected across govt.

“What has changed is that the monthly bill delivers for better management of an official data procedure in which we ever more operate across governing administration to deliver studies.”

In its quest to give Stats NZ more oversight of governing administration data, the monthly bill puts the Authorities Statistician – the bureaucrat tasked with oversight of official data – at the coronary heart of a cross-authorities information operation.

The invoice contains a provision making it possible for the Authorities Statistician to delegate most of their powers to some others in the Government, allowing them to gather data on the statistician’s behalf. There are few restrictions on who in govt could acquire all those powers – it likely features the police and intelligence companies.

One more criticism is how details can be utilized. Although the recent legislation emphasises the production of “official statistics”, the invoice introduces a different justification for accumulating information: “Research”.

Present law does let for facts to be accessed for investigation. Each individual year, hundreds of research jobs use the IDI, below rigorous privacy conditions.

The invoice makes this more explicit “for research” is a said explanation to accumulate data from any specific, public sector company, or organisation the Federal government Statistician (or their delegate) deems “desirable”.

“Research is pretty deliberately not defined in the bill,” states Andrew Ecclestone, an open up government researcher and deputy chairman of the NZCCL.

“It could signify we want to style and design policies to help unemployed faculty-leavers, but it could similarly necessarily mean we want to determine people people who might convert up to protest from an APEC meeting that New Zealand is likely to host.

“That’s nevertheless analysis. And this monthly bill is heading to allow not just the law enforcement, not just the Defence Force, but the country’s intelligence agencies to have accessibility to this administrative info.”

Jones from Stats NZ claims the delegation electrical power presently exists – it was passed in the Far better Community Companies Act in 2020, which streamlined the general public services. And if the Govt Statistician have been to delegate their powers, they would still hold duty for what is generated.

“I’m not conscious of any purpose that has ever been delegated, nor do we have any intention, in the quick to medium time period, to delegate the features,” he claims.

“If the statistician made the decision to do that, they however retain accountability for the decisions. You can wager your bottom greenback that the statistician is going to be hunting quite carefully at who they delegate and continue to keep a near eye on the exercise of the delegate if they do that.”

Information is now used for investigate, he states – investigation that offers substantial value to New Zealand. Entry provisions are strictly controlled, and Stats NZ on a regular basis engages with the general public about the extent of info usage and how that facts is guarded.

“Privacy is at the core of all the things we do. That is the lifeblood of our work,” he states.

“We recognise our purpose as the steward of that details, and we acquire a great deal of duty to make positive that it is only made use of for genuine exploration needs and in a way that is going to benefit New Zealand.”

An ‘administrative state’

It ties into a broader debate about not just the total of knowledge staying collected, but what form.

“We are observing the federal government go to accumulate extra and extra details, and we’re involved about what that signifies since – by its assortment, by its existence, by its use – it is a way of exerting energy more than folks and power about societies,” suggests Thomas Beagle, chairman of the NZCCL.

“We’ve bought equally business and authorities interested in gathering as significantly knowledge as they can, to impact us, to keep track of us, and possibly to manage us. They’re equally looking at what the other 1 can do and saying, we’d like some of that, please.”

Beagle points to the growing relieve with which “de-identified” knowledge – this kind of as that contained in the IDI – can be cross-matched with other facts sets to determine individuals. Scientists in Australia have been capable to use de-identified community transport knowledge to observe the actions of individuals, such as a area MP.

Yet another problem is the emphasis on administrative details – Stats NZ now prioritises its use, and has stated it wants to change the census, relying solely on administrative information.

Thomas Beagle, chairperson of the Council of Civil Liberties, says drug dog searches in schools was “over the top”.


Thomas Beagle, chairperson of the Council of Civil Liberties, claims drug dog lookups in schools was “over the top”.

Len Prepare dinner, a former Government Statistician for both of those New Zealand and the United Kingdom, says this method is critically flawed.

”Administrative data contains the details the point out thinks it needs through its views on what wants to be calculated about individuals. It is a quite, pretty slender check out of what the condition thinks is critical,” he suggests.

“It does not have the citizen’s check out. There’s quite a good deal of factors we only locate out by way of surveys, simply because we really do not require to know them in conditions of administering a legislation. That’s wherever I believe administrative knowledge has elementary restrictions.”

He factors to the electricity of statistical surveys to respond to basic inquiries about culture: the desires of people with disabilities, the extent of baby poverty, how folks use their time. These inquiries are difficult, if not extremely hard, to answer with administrative data.

Jones, from Stats NZ, says the agency has no programs to stop carrying out statistical surveys, and greater use of administrative information has lots of rewards.

“If you can use administrative details properly, there are lots of positive aspects. It lessens the burden on folks – we you should not have to go and inquire individuals for information that we already maintain about them. It’s significantly more cost-effective, because we will not have to deliver people today into the discipline to job interview men and women, and it’s a fantastic value to New Zealand to do that. It can be a lot more well timed and granular.

“There are a bunch of issues that you can have an understanding of about the financial system and society and the ecosystem by the use of administrative information, and when we can do that, and we can do that securely, New Zealanders have advised us they want us to do that much more typically.”

Preserving the rely on

In 1975, a significant laptop or computer was mounted in a fortress-like building near the Whanganui river.

It was a centralised database of community records, employed primarily by the law enforcement. Its existence was controversial. The thought that the state would maintain particular info in a database was new. For critics at the time, the closest parallel was Huge Brother, the dystopian federal government imagined in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Responding to those issues, in 1976, Parliament passed a legislation requiring the creation of a coverage board governing its use. That board integrated external associates, together with authorized and laptop gurus. The law also established an impartial commissioner who would investigate breaches of privateness.

Exterior oversight of how facts is employed is normalised in academia investigate projects utilizing such info would be subjected to an ethics committee.

“The govt is not proposing to set itself below any of the same safeguards,” Ecclestone from the NZCCL claims.

“It’s leaving it solely in the hands of the Federal government Statistician. And this is weaker than the 1976 Wanganui Personal computer Center Act, which experienced external lawful and laptop industry experts on its governance committee.”

Both the NZCCL and Prepare dinner have pointed to a new regulation in Australia which establishes a National Facts Commissioner, who has electricity to oversee and regulate the government’s facts sharing tactics.

Former NZ and UK government statistician Len Cook


Previous NZ and United kingdom government statistician Len Prepare dinner

To Len Cook dinner, the over-all effect of the changes dangers eroding the trust in formal data designed about far more than a century.

When he took on the prime studies job in the Uk two decades ago, he confronted a barrage of abuse and regular makes an attempt to interfere with his do the job.

1 MP explained the oversight of official stats as “one of the spoils of election victory”, Cook remembers. He himself was “bullied each six months” about some thing linked to figures, he claims, by men and women within just the federal government – not just politicians, but associates of the public company.

Even the media received included: Just one tabloid newspaper dubbed him Len “Cook the books”.

New Zealand does not have this politicisation of stats. He provides an case in point: current inflation figures.

“There’s not been any discussion that the Govt Statistician acquired it erroneous, at minimum not what I have read,” Prepare dinner says.

“The discussion is about what to do about the figure. The instant you start off shedding have confidence in in statistics, you would end up possessing to argue irrespective of whether you need to have faith in the inflation in the first place.”

A purpose for that is the Authorities Statistician is separate from coverage formulation support delivery. When the part can be delegated to men and women who are earning coverage, Cook dinner suggests, its independence can be reasonably questioned.

Extra broadly, when you start creating adjustments to a program that depends on general public belief without the need of bringing the community along, it presents threats that are pretty hard to take care of.

The stakes are higher belief constructed around generations risks staying shed.

“Over numerous many years, it is my now-lifeless predecessors who experienced accountability for building the have faith in in the Govt Statistician that we have all extensive become accustomed to,” he wrote past thirty day period.

“I would hope them to be turning in their graves when this invoice is enacted.”


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