Records containing personal information held at Archives
We have been notified of information involving the personal details of individuals held in open access files in our archives. Since then questions have been raised about additional open access files that should be restricted. This kind of information would be restricted under today’s approach to privacy.
Personal information often forms part of the public record, which we hold. When we were made aware of this situation, together with the agency on whose behalf we hold this information, we took immediate steps to suspend the open-access of these files to ensure they were no longer publicly available while the agency reassess the access.
Our role is to manage public archives under the Public Records Act 2005 (PRA). Under the PRA, agencies are responsible for assigning the level of access to their records at the time of transfer, in consultation with the Chief Archivist. Typically, this will be set to ‘Open’ or Restricted.’ Open access means that anyone can access the records, while restricted access normally requires obtaining permission from the controlling agency first. We implement the access requests assigned. At the same time, we provide guidance on how to determine access levels and our staff advise agencies on how to determine access to their records consistent with that guidance.
There is an inherent tension in balancing open access to the public record, with the privacy and security of individuals. Current guidance to agencies is that information of this nature should carry a restriction to protect personal privacy. In this case, the identified records were transferred prior to the enactment of the Privacy Act 1993 and the PRA, in a time when the legislation and standards were different to what they are now.
Because this relates to children formerly in state care, we have advised the eight government agencies involved with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions that this has happened. Other agencies have also responded to this issue. We have reminded agencies of our guidance and are assisting the information management staff in each agency to determine whether any of their open-access records relevant to the Royal Commission require reassessment.
Due to the steps we have taken to restrict access to files while agencies review them, researchers may find that some files are restricted while we work to ensure this is resolved. Individuals who have an interest in viewing such records can still apply through the relevant agency. Read more about the work of Archives, the historical information we hold in the public record and how it is classified, elsewhere on our website and in our Questions and Answers below.
If you believe an open-access record you have viewed is not appropriately classified, please contact our Information Management Advice team.
If your agency has questions about our processes and practice, please contact our Information Management Advice team.
If you have a media inquiry or would like comment, please contact the DIA media desk.
What is our role?
We work to ensure effective, trusted government information for the benefit of all New Zealanders. We preserve and protect more than seven million official records, from 19th century treaties to 21st century documents and data. Our goal is for all New Zealanders to easily access and use this taonga, connecting you to your rights and entitlements and stories – now and for the future.
What information do we hold?
Government archives cover almost every aspect of New Zealand life, and the lives of New Zealanders. They hold legal, personal, cultural and historical evidence for all kinds of research, from family history to royal commissions.
We hold more than seven million records created and used by the New Zealand Government dating from around 1840 to the recent past. These records were transferred to us by government departments and agencies over time to archive as they were deemed to be of long-term value.
Not all records created by the government have survived, or have been kept, and those still being used within government agencies have not come to us yet. The records that we do hold shed light on the historical relationship between the New Zealand public and the state. This relationship makes up the official memory of government.
How is historical information accessed?
Anyone can search for records in Collections search.
To request records to view in person, you need to first register as a reader. This gives you a unique reader number to use when ordering records to view. Many files are now digitised, but unless available online, you will need to visit one of our four reading rooms across the country to view archives. A reading room is a quiet space with dedicated staff to assist you in finding and ordering archives.
Assuming the files you have requested have been classified as open access by the transferring agency, you will be able to view them in the reading room. For files classified as restricted, you will need to obtain access permission with the agency first – we can help direct you to the right agency if you need help.
You can also request research assistance and order digital copies of records through our Remote Reference service.
How is the information we hold classified?
By law, responsibility for access decisions resides with the agency that created or controls the records. Under the Public Records Act 2005 (PRA), agencies are responsible for assigning the level of access to their records at the time of transfer to Archives, in consultation with the Chief Archivist. Typically, this will be set to ‘Open’ or ‘Restricted.’ Open access means that anyone can access the records, while restricted access requires obtaining permission from the controlling agency first.
Archives New Zealand, as the regulator of government information, provides guidance on how to determine access levels and our staff advise agencies on how to determine access to their records consistent with that guidance.
Why do agencies assign access status?
It is most appropriate for agencies to do this because they understand the contents and context of their records best. We provide advice and support for this process as part of its business-as-usual work.
Why do we hold personal information?
Personal information often forms part of the public record, which we hold. Well-known examples include personnel records for WW1 soldiers and probate files.
What information was accessed in this case?
We were recently notified by a journalist that sensitive personal information was found in open access records held in our archives. The records identified contained the names and historic personal information of people who had spent time in state care during their childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. These were administrative records and contained some personal information. These were not personal case files.
What immediate steps were taken to restrict access to this information?
As soon as we were notified, we moved to suspend open access to this information. This ensures it is not publicly available until the agency has had the opportunity to review the access status of the records. We can put this type of suspension in place under section 49(1)(b) of the Public Records Act 2005.
Why was this information not restricted?
The information in question was transferred to our archives after the Official Information Act 1982, but before the PRA or the Privacy Act 1993 existed and the approach to privacy was very different.
Today, this kind of information would be reviewed upon transfer and restrictions placed on the information as appropriate. In some cases, ownership of the information has also passed through several Ministries over the course of time.
Do we know if other people have accessed this information?
Information to hand at this stage indicates only government officials and the journalist have accessed the information.
Can we assure the public that no other information has the wrong access status?
Agencies are responsible for setting the access status. We provide guidance to agencies and will act on their request to amend access status. When our staff or third parties identify information that might require review, we contact the responsible agency to advise them that they may need to reassess the access status of their records.
It is not possible for us to provide an assurance that all seven million historical records are all correctly classified. However, we can provide an assurance that we are working actively with agencies to ensure that access classification of new archival transfers today are correctly considered and any issues with the access classifications of previous transfers are addressed.
What assurances can we give the public that no other files containing personal information can be accessed?
We cannot provide a guarantee that all seven million historical records are classified absolutely correctly.
We work with other agencies to ensure that new archival transfers today are correctly considered and that any issues raised regarding previous transfers are addressed. Guidance is available on our website and we are constantly working with other agencies to ensure they have the necessary information.
We act immediately to request agencies review access status where we think it is required.
Have the government agencies we approached responded?
Yes they have. We are continuing to work to resolve access status issues.
What action have we taken to let people know their information was able to be accessed?
We understand and appreciate some people may be concerned their information could be accessed. Oranga Tamariki is considering when and how it is appropriate to contact those people.
Do we routinely review records for appropriate access?
We do not routinely review access classifications as, by law, access is the responsibility of each agency.
Do we intend to carry out an external review of the access settings of its holdings? Has this been done in the past?
We do not consider that a review necessary. This type of review has not been done in the past.
What happens when concerns are raised?
When members of the public or our staff identify information that could be wrongly classified, we can suspend the function that lets researchers order the record, and then contact the responsible agency to advise them that they may need to reassess access status to their records.
We are currently working actively with agencies linked to the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care and others to check the correct access status is assigned to files.