New Zealand Law Society - Hashtag Privacy Commissioner: John Edwards

Hashtag Privacy Commissioner: John Edwards

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Privacy Commissioner John Edwards used to know most of the world’s information law specialists.

In the 1990s, the informal network of privacy and data lawyers contained just dozens of lawyers, but since then has ballooned into an enormous industry.

“The whole landscape has changed immeasurably since then,” Mr Edwards says.

“There are tens of thousands of people involved in privacy advice and advocacy. There are NGOs, every company has got somebody whose job it is to keep involved with this type of stuff.”

The New Plymouth raised Victoria University law graduate had a short stint in a Taranaki law firm. Then he returned to work at the Office of the Ombudsman in Wellington. His next job was helping to set up the office of the first privacy commissioner.

He foresaw the niche area of information law and set up in practice on Willis Street.

The practice specialised in information law, but with no initial client base, he took “pretty much anyone that walked in the door”. But from the start there were a few privacy cases.

“I was mostly assisting agencies to comply with the law, so a lot of it was opinion pieces and that sort of thing,” he says.

“I did do some advocacy work. In about 1996, I remember I did a job where I was acting for a DHB. A consultant had sent a letter to a GP describing a woman’s previous pregnancies, terminations and sexually transmitted diseases.

“But instead of sending that letter to the woman’s GP he sent it to her mother. It was a very devastating thing for her. It completely disrupted her family relationships and there were cultural implications.”

The real interest in the area grew when the European Union gave the data protection directive in the late 1990s. Since then the area has grown exponentially.

“That provoked an awful lot of interest in the United States with having good privacy practices,” Mr Edwards says.

The emergence of new technologies has dramatically changed the risk landscape of privacy.

“I think there are bigger risks that have come with having bigger data holdings. More can go wrong, more spectacularly, more quickly than was the case under paper-based systems.”

When asked, in reality, how many people had the technology or knowledge to do major damage with a big data leak, Mr Edwards replied that often the damage is not that a user’s accounts are hacked – the harm is the undermining of public confidence.

“If people are anxious then that has impact on their way of life – if they are not anxious they have a better quality of life.”

Mr Edwards has crafted a personal place for himself online.

An avid social media user (@JCE_PC tweeted his appointment as Privacy Commissioner) he sees the medium as “a natural fit to bring into my new role because social media is a place where there are considerable risks to privacy”.

“But if I am there and using those channels I will reach who I want to reach. I think that members of the public are entitled to see what we are doing and it gives people some reassurance that there are people looking after their private information.”

And when his turn in the commissioner’s seat ends, Mr Edwards would like people to remember him as a strong advocate who made “sure individual autonomy and dignity wasn’t lost, as we enjoyed the enormous benefits of big data and enhanced communication technologies”.

This profile was first published in LawTalk 843, 6 June 2014, page 13.

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