The trust paradox

Reconciling security and privacy may be the issue of the decade, senior leaders of public agencies attending the fourth Transparency International Leaders Integrity Forum were told last month.

Photo by Nick CP

The first police officers were outfitted in uniforms. Uniforms made them visible and thus helped to deter criminal activity in public places. The colour blue was chosen to distinguish police from the army’s red uniforms, thus showing that police were of the citizenry working in the public interest. Officers were part of and known to their community.

Visibility and transparency matter because they support trust and confidence, concluded Howard Broad, former Police Commissioner and now Deputy Chief Executive: Security and Intelligence at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).

The first duty of government is to protect its citizens from harm in efforts carried out mostly in the public eye. But sometimes in order to ensure our safety and security, some secrecy is required. The success of security intelligence is buried in the broader success (and the absence of significant or serial failures) of our diplomacy, policing, and border control efforts. For our national security agencies, it’s a challenge to build trust in in the absence of the sort of transparency features built into most public agencies, including the Police.

John Edwards, the Privacy Commissioner, spoke about this trust paradox at the forum. He argued that privacy plus transparency builds trust. John focused on individual privacy, sounding a note of caution around governments using big data and predictive algorithms to determine the allocation of resources or services. People, he argued, should be able to see how and why decisions affecting them are made, and they should be able to challenge when and where they think these decisions are wrong.

In our report Public sector accountability through raising concerns, we observed that New Zealand’s arrangements for making complaints and raising concerns is already a complex web of accountability functions and agencies. The use of big data is just one of the emerging trends adding challenges to national security and individual privacy matters.

What national security and individual privacy have in common is that features that help create and maintain public trust are often not available. Despite this, we know that in a high-trust environment, the cost of doing business or engaging the public is much lower than in a low-trust environment, making it both common sense and cost effective. The limits of transparency for matters such as national security and individual privacy mean that both require balancing openness and secrecy.

There are two groups where I think public trust is uniquely important.

The first group is our elected representatives who have the unenviable task of ultimately determining the balance between openness and secrecy.

The other group is key oversight agencies, led by people like the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, and the Privacy Commissioner. John Edwards felt that where the sunlight of transparency does not easily reach, it is up to the oversight agencies to shine a torch into the furthest corners of such matters. In the coming months, the Auditor-General will be publishing a report on the governance arrangements that support the national security system. It is the DPMC that leads and co-ordinates our national security priorities, the civil defence emergency management system, and our intelligence system. The DPMC, along with other government agencies, works to help New Zealand have world-class processes in place to identify and deal with national security events and emergencies and to build national resilience. They also work to ensure that the New Zealand Intelligence Community is viewed as trusted, integrated, customer oriented, and crucial to building national resilience.

We may not all agree on how to reconcile security and privacy but there are many minds, passionate about the New Zealand public service, who are devoted to exploring this issue.

Image credit: Nick CP.

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