CHRIS HIPKINS (Labour—Rimutaka)
: I am very happy to take a call on the Identity Information Confirmation Bill, and I congratulate the Minister of Internal Affairs on bringing it to the House. The Labour Party will be supporting this bill at its first reading. We do so not completely without reservations. I will be interested in hearing some of the evidence on this bill when it comes before the Government Administration Committee, because making more information available on people’s personal identities is a pretty sensitive issue. One of the things that I am anxious about is that in making more information about people’s personal identities available in order to combat identity fraud, we do not want to inadvertently increase the opportunities for identity fraud. The information that we are making available could well do that. I will be looking quite carefully at what controls are in place.
This bill has never been more important. Personal information, like date of birth, address, mother’s maiden name, passwords, and so on, is now as valuable as money. Those things I have just mentioned provide enough information to enable someone to open a bank account, apply for a credit card, get a loan, and do a whole lot of other things. When we think about how difficult it would be to track down that type of information about somebody, it probably would not be hard at all. I think identity fraud will potentially become an increasing issue, as 42 percent of New Zealand businesses were impacted or affected by identity fraud in the past year and the New Zealand Police identified 900 cases of identity fraud last year. The police believe, and I am sure it is true, that that is only a fraction of the identity fraud that is taking place.
Of course, the highest-profile case of identity fraud that we saw was the one that the Minister alluded to in his first reading speech in the House on Tuesday night. This was the high-profile identity fraud case of Wayne Thomas Patterson, who was sentenced to 8 years in prison after being convicted of using over 123 different identities to steal $3.4 million in benefits in 2007. That is a heck of a lot of money—$3.4 million, spread across 123 identities. As the Minister pointed out, having this kind of identity verification service in place would have helped to prevent something like that from taking place. I think Work and Income could have done a number of other things to prevent that fraud from taking place, as 123 separate identities is an awful lot of identities for one person to get away with presenting. I would have thought Work and Income could have done some other things that might have picked up that fraud a little before then, but, either way, this bill seems to be a step in the right direction.
I want to run through some of the comments the Minister made in his speech and respond to them. I understand from his speech that it will be a web-based system, run by the Department of Internal Affairs. It will allow organisations to check whether information presented to them is consistent with the information held by the department. The three major sources of that information are citizens’ registers, the passport database, and Births, Deaths and Marriages. As a result, this will allow businesses and other organisations to increase the level of confidence they have in the identity information that is presented to them. I think, by and large, that is a good thing. There will always be some anxiety when it comes to opening up personal records that Government departments hold on individual citizens, and that is one of the reasons why I think it is very important that the person whose information is being released must consent to having the information released. I understand from the Minister’s speech, and from my reading of the legislation as it now stands, that that is a requirement. Someone has to consent to his or her information being released, and that is good. That is one positive step, and there will be others that we will want to look at.
The other interesting point put forward by the Minister was that an organisation must maintain another process for dealing with a person who does not provide a consent to the check. An organisation cannot withhold a service, a product, or whatever simply because a person has refused to sign a form saying that the organisation could get the identity information from the department. I think that is an important safeguard. Whatever the business, the agency, or whoever involved, it could not say to someone: “You either sign this, or you’re out.” The organisation still has to have an alternative system for tracking somebody’s identity. I imagine that 99 percent of New Zealanders will not have a problem, if the information they are presenting is true and accurate, with signing something and saying that this is their identity and the organisation is welcome to check it with the Department of Internal Affairs. Having that safeguard in place is very important.
I will be interested in what liability this may create for the department if the information it ends up giving out is potentially incorrect. One of the things about data matching is that it is not 100 percent reliable. As a constituent member of Parliament, I dealt with an immigration and citizenship case of somebody whom the Immigration Service claimed had been out of the country for such a long period that it could not give that person residency. It was a challenge. The guy had payslips to demonstrate that he had been in the country and working during all that time, but somebody else with the same name had left the country during that period. That fact had been recorded by the Immigration Service as this man having left, not that other person. This person was being told that he could not apply for residency because he had not been here for the required period. When we think about these things, we find it is really important that we have a system in place to make sure that the data being is given out is very reliable.
We need to think carefully about what liabilities there may be for the department. For example, if somebody did not get a job on suspicion that there was some identity fraud going on, or the person was denied a service on the basis that there may have been some identity fraud going on and it turned out that that was not true, then what would the potential liabilities be? I will be particularly interested in that issue when the bill comes before the select committee.
I will also be particularly interested in the comments of the Privacy Commissioner, because obviously when we are dealing with people’s personal information there are some really significant issues around privacy. What the Privacy Commissioner has to say will be really important for the select committee and for Parliament. One of the things the Minister suggested in his first reading speech was that this bill has safeguards in place to ensure that individuals retain the control over their own information and how it is being used. Again, that is really important from a privacy perspective. Organisations that enter into agreements with the Department of Internal Affairs to access this information will have to sign contracts on processes in place, how it will use the information, and so on. That is another safeguard that the bill puts in place, which is very good.
The bill establishes for a generic agreement—or template, if you like—to be set up by the department. That can then be used with different organisations and for the Privacy Commissioner to have a role in checking and reviewing that. The Privacy Commissioner will be able to order that it be reviewed if she sees that that is necessary. That is a welcome safeguard, and one that Labour will certainly be supporting. The Privacy Commissioner, at her request, can request a report on the operation of the service, which would include statistics on how many people present information that is inconsistent with the records of the departments. Once again, I think that will help pick up on cases where there may be an error or bug in the system, and so on. When we are dealing with people’s individual identities, it is really, really important that we get it
right and that someone is not accused of stealing someone else’s identity if, in fact, the person has not done so.
Overall, at this point in the proceedings the Labour Party is happy to support the bill to the select committee. We look forward to hearing what the Privacy Commissioner has to say. I imagine there will be a number of civil libertarian groups around the country that will want to have a say. I will be interested to hear what groups like the Law Commission and Law Society may want to contribute, if anything, on this bill. It is an interesting bill. Anything that helps us to crack down on what I think will be an emerging issue—that of identity fraud—is something we should welcome. With those conditions in mind, the Labour Party is happy to vote for this bill to go to the select committee.