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- Privacy concerns gone mad
- The New Zealand Herald3 Dec 2007
- THEGovernment has had to back-track a little on a bill to restrict access to the registers of births, deaths and marriages. Labour and its allied parties are said to have agreed to allow open access in principle but will hedge it with so much red tape that the records will be closed in practice. The bill has drawn opposition from historians, genealogists, researchers, biographers and the news media, all ofwhomfind the records an invaluable tool of their trade. The measure was advanced for the purpose of denying access to criminal elements who use the records for identity fraud, a genuine enough problem but one that ought to be fixed without tramping on the rights of legitimate users and taking a great deal of information out of the public domain.
- The watered-down legislation looks likely to allow access to the records only on application to the registry. Applicants will need to provide adequate identification and a new register will be set up so that people can find out who has accessed their information.
- Is all of this really necessary? One of the wonderful, largely uncelebrated, developments of the internet age has been an explosion in personal genealogists’ research. With open access to international registers of births, deaths and marriages people are finding networks of connections they never knew they had.
- The discovery of a maiden surname in amarriage record can open up new branches of a family tree. Nothing would kill this innocent research quicker than the need to apply for official permission, complete with verifiable identification. The appeal of internet research is its instant, free routes to information. Bureaucracy should keep out.
- The news media, likewise, need the ability to access public records quickly. There is no time in a daily publication cycle to satisfy the requirements of formal applications. Officials do not move that fast.
- Historians, biographers and others who expressed alarm at the closure of the records might be assuaged by the amendments to the bill but they might find the conditions attached to access more frustrating in practice than they seem.
- While identity fraud is undoubtedly a problem, the suspicion remains that this legislation has been conceived as much by today’s excessive solicitude for personal privacy. The revised bill is likely to allow individuals to bar public access to their personal records as long as they have a good reason, which would have to be declared to the authorities.
- It is hard to know how much people really worry about the privacy of personal information. Agreat deal of political heat is generated by those who harbour Orwellian fears of state surveillance, and personal privacy now has its own stateappointed watchdog agency. But public records are kept for good purpose, and public access is essential if they are not to be a secret resource of the state.
- Acertain amount of personal disclosure is an inevitable duty of citizenship. Apublic register of births, deaths and marriages is a minimal requirement. Any cohesive society needs to know who has been born into it, who has died and who have made marital contracts or civil unions with all the legal implications they carry.
- The amendments under discussion would render the legislation not quite as stifling as it would have been when automatic access was to be restricted to one’s personal records and those of a known family member, but still it introduces needless barriers to information that is part of the common currency of citizenship.
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