Bankers Association says NZ can't have one-size-fits-all on privacy cases

Bankers' Association boss Karen Scott-Howman

New Zealand Bankers' Association chief executive Karen Scott-Howman

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Bank customers can be confident about the protection of their private financial information held by banks despite a decision saying Westpac got it wrong in relation to political activist Nicky Hager, says the New Zealand Bankers’ Association.

Association chief executive Karen Scott-Howman says the information passed on to police by the banks operates under a letter of agreement which was only updated late last year and the individual banks then set their own privacy policies.

Under that agreement when police request information during a criminal investigation they have to detail what information they want, how the incident is being investigated, and how the information will assist in the investigation.

“There is always going to be some discretion when you get to the harder cases and for those we can’t set out rules for how those operate in every case,” she says. “Privacy and confidentiality is an absolutely fundamental right for New Zealanders but so is maintenance of law and order, so in some cases a balance has to happen.”

There is no need to change that co-operation framework because there will always be a balancing act on some cases and that’s up to the police and the banks to make in each individual case, she says.

Westpac has already changed its processes to avoid a repetition of the Hager case where the Privacy Commissioner said it shouldn’t have released his bank records without a court order.  

Westpac says it now requires the police to have a production order before customer information is handed over when they’re investigating a crime. Exceptions remain where the police are looking for a missing person, where CCTV may show a crime occurring in a location, or where a customer has been the victim of a crime and notified police. 

Ms Scott-Howman said following the Privacy Commissioner finding’s yesterday she’s sure all the banks are “looking at this case seriously.”

Banks, like any large corporates, don’t always get things right and that’s why there is a voluntary banking ombudsman scheme as an independent complaints body, she says.

Mr Hager’s barrister, Felix Geiringer, has said the case highlights the wider issue of companies providing information to police and all customers should be asking their banks in what circumstances that personal information is being released. He said it was also an issue for other companies that hold private data such as phone companies and online websites.

While the Privacy Commissioner upheld the complaint against Westpac, his view is only advisory and he stopped short of sending the case to the Human Rights Tribunal, which can make binding orders.

Hager says he hasn’t yet met with his lawyer to discuss whether he’ll take the complaint on to the tribunal.  

The records were released during a policy investigation into leaked information published in Hager's 2014 pre-election book Dirty Politics in which a large amount of material was sourced from an anonymous informant known only as "Rawshark' whose identity has never been revealed.

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4 Comments & Questions

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Westpac's current online privacy statement, effective October 2016, does not refer at all to police needing a production order. It leaves the decision to a member of the company's judgement.

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If the police or any other agency want information they can get a warrant or other similar court-sanctioned go ahead. If they can't meet the level of evidence needed for that then too bad.

This gentlemen's agreement model is not acceptable in modern society. We, the customers, have a right to privacy in particular in dealings with our financial houses.

If my bank did this I would immediately move to another. I recommend Westpac customers seriously question the motives behind the bank's processes in all of this.

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Westpac has responded to my queries about this with an e-mail received on February 22, saying:

The findings released yesterday relate to an issue raised back in 2015. As the Privacy Commissioner noted, we have changed our processes to avoid a repetition.

Those changes have been in place for over a year and we require a production order to provide Police with customer information when they are investigating a crime.

The exceptions to this are where the Police are looking for a missing person, where CCTV may show a crime occurring in a location or where a customer has been the victim of a crime and notified Police.

We understand the importance of protecting customer information and believe these processes help us achieve that.

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I find it ironic that the complainant is Hager who happily discloses private information he has received, probably "illegally".

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