The identity and privacy dilemma

Victoria University of Wellington's Anne Goulding discusses the paradox of New Zealanders wanting to safeguard our personal data, while frequently and freely giving it away

The Identity Conference 2019, the fourth in a series beginning in 2008, explores the issues surrounding the collection and storage of personal identity information and what this means for the people of Aotearoa and beyond.

Advances in data collection, processing and analysis mean we are living in an increasingly connected world where data from multiple and smarter devices is shared more extensively and more rapidly than ever before. This can help government and organisations respond more quickly and target services and initiatives more accurately, but recent high-profile data and terms of service breaches have raised concerns about what happens to our personal data and how it can be protected. 

The theme of this year’s conference, ‘Identity as taonga: now and in the future’, highlights that our identity is core to who we are as individuals and must be treated with care. The set of attributes that distinguishes us as individuals forms the basis for our sense of self and should not be passed on without consideration of the risks for our relationships, finances and even reputation.

The value of our personal data for others is not in doubt, though, and many operators want to access it, analyse it and make use of it. In The Great Hack, the recent documentary on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we heard that “data is the most valuable asset on earth”, and yet people are often quite unaware of how much of their information is being collected on a day-to-day basis, who is looking at it and what happens to it. Even when people are aware that their data is being harvested and have some concerns about its privacy, they rarely make an effort to protect it and continue to hand it over voluntarily.

This can have serious implications. The Department of Internal Affairs estimates that more than 130,000 New Zealanders fall victim to identity theft annually, costing the economy up to $209 million every year. A range of offline and online methods of identity crime are used to steal people’s identity but the most common is when someone hands over their personal details, sometimes freely – through social network sites, for example – or because they are deceived into providing them.

A recent survey from Digital Identity NZ found that 79 percent of New Zealanders are concerned about the protection of their identity and use of personal data, with 89 percent worried about their data being shared without their permission. While 73 percent claimed to have changed their online behaviour due to privacy concerns, large numbers of us are still interacting with systems and organisations that collect our personal information on an ongoing basis.

This so-called ‘privacy paradox’ highlights the dilemma many of us face; while we want to safeguard our personal data, at the same time we frequently and freely give it away and few of us protect it actively.

Another quandary is that while we want our interactions with public agencies and government to be efficient and seamless, we are concerned that the information we provide may be lost, stolen or misused. The ‘digital shift’ means that vast amounts of personal data is now collected by government at both national and local levels and its value for policy, decision-making and good government cannot be underestimated. But how do we manage this without compromising privacy and personal identity? 

The costs for those who fall victim to identity crime can be serious, and horror stories of financial ruin and reputational damage abound. A more insidious outcome is the undermining of public trust in online services and transactions, which, given the digital shift, is a worry. If people are sceptical about the security of their personal data, they are less likely to engage online with the agencies and organisations that can benefit them.

Developing solutions to make people’s digital engagement and online transactions with government and corporations simpler and and more trustworthy is a key theme of the Identity Conference, with a focus on improving security so individuals and organisations have more control over how their personal data is shared and used. 

‘Identity as taonga: now and in the future – Identity Conference 2019’ is on 26–27 August at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. The conference is a collaboration between the Department of Internal Affairs, Victoria University of Wellington, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and Digital Identity NZ.

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