Being a therapist, privacy’s kind of in the blood. Much the same for all health professionals, it’s part of our training and our professional ethics. Lawyers, doctors and priests all have legal privilege to keep even incriminating information private, with some very occasional exceptions. These exceptions don’t have black and white rules, they’re governed by clinical experience, professional ethics and balancing risks.
It’s notable that the Government’s recent “White Paper” on child abuse responses even shied away from mandatory reporting. Clinical privacy is a complex matter and breaching privacy for any professional is always a carefully thought through and serious matter.
However I’m fairly convinced the Minister for Social Development, Hon. Paula Bennett doesn’t really understand the ethics of privacy.
After breaching beneficiary Natasha Fuller’s privacy in 2009 by releasing details of her income from WINZ, the Minster said:
“I acknowledge that you consider that I was wrong to do so and that this resulted in a breach of Ms Fuller’s privacy. As you also know, I do not accept that view.”
You might recall the reason Mrs. Bennett breached privacy was because the client of WINZ publicly criticised the Minister for cutting back the training allowance, in other words exercising her right to free speech.
“I’m deeply disappointed information which should have been secure has been accessed, the public has a right to expect more of a government agency,” says Mrs Bennett.”
And more of a Minister.
Accessing, hearing, holding and managing anyone’s personal information is a privilege. Health, pastoral and legal professions “get this.” Without confidentiality many helping professions cease to exist.
The common factor with the now public information about the internal computer systems at WINZ and the ACC (see: “When a secret is no longer a secret”) is the complete absence of internal checks and balances against inappropriate access of information by internal staff and it would seem even by the Minister. I doubt WINZ would see its information as “clinically privileged” but much of it is; and if the ACC don’t then they should by now.
In my opinion when information is handled “administratively” it can easily be handled without the privileged respect it deserves. Keith’s blog outlines the digital equivalent of leaving files laying around on desks in an open plan office, with the front door unlocked.
Curiosity is human nature and robust privacy systems recognise that people are naturally inclined to look if there are no consequences. In the public health system where I also work, I can’t directly access anyone’s file that I am not directly involved in treating. If I do open such a file I must justify my actions and it is auditable.
But I guess if WINZ were to implement such a process it would prohibit the Minister from accessing the information she needs to attack and publicly shame her critics in the future:
“When asked… …if she would do the same thing again [breach a WINZ client’s privacy], Ms Bennett would not rule it out… “It would depend on the circumstances but I’m not going to make a judgement on what may or may not happen. I’d make a call at the time.”