6 Aug 2018

Immigration NZ forced to address privacy concerns with RealMe

10:49 am on 6 August 2018

Privacy breaches by immigration advisors have forced Immigration New Zealand to halt efforts to move some of its visa applications solely online.

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Photo: 123RF

Documents show the department knew four months ago that advisers were breaching the terms of the government website RealMe, which people use to prove who are they, but only alerted them three weeks ago.

Immigration advisors have to use the government's secure site RealMe to lodge applications on behalf of their clients.

New Zealand Association for Migration and Investment chairperson June Ranson said typically this involves more than one person in the office having access to an applicant's file, sharing log-ins.

"It's when you have the advisors who are in fact working in companies and they have back-up support people and those people can be acting on their behalf in loading information into RealMe and following up," Mrs Ranson said.

That's in breach of the site's terms and conditions.

Documents obtained by RNZ show Immigration New Zealand officials have been aware of the problem for months, including this advice from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in April.

"The sharing of these logins is in violation of RealMe's terms or use and creates broader privacy risks around access to applicant's information and possible misuses of login credentials," the privacy office said in their advice.

Mrs Ranson said immigration officials only brought it to their attention three weeks ago, which coincided with information being released to RNZ.

Immigration New Zealand general manager service design and performance Stephen Dunstan said it didn't encourage or condone the sharing of RealMe accounts.

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Steve Dunstan Photo: Supplied

"They have a choice of how they get applications to us, either on paper which ... is the application method that's been used predominately for the last 30-40 years and they will be very familiar with doing that. Or there is an online choice and the online choice is perfectly usable for immigration advisors, they should just not share their RealMe account," he said.

Mrs Ranson argues paper applications are not without their problems and suggests the department bring back drop boxes, which let people submit their application at their local immigration office.

"The inconvenience that's going to be caused to applicants is that going back to paper, they have to pay more for their application. They have got the risk that their documents - hard copy documents - can only be transferred through the courier system, which can get lost and it's more time consuming," she said.

Mrs Ranson said in the rush to get visa applications online, the process hasn't been thought through.

"When Immigration New Zealand came up with the online system they never really thought through the potential problem for the online system being designed through using the RealMe," she said.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner agreed, questioning the rush to go online before a better identification system had been developed.

The Office said unless its concerns were addressed, the project should be put on hold.

We have significant concerns that, as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has identified, mandating use of the online portal will exacerbate the issue already in play with RealMe logins. Similarly, we are concerned that MBIE would be sanctioning and endorsing the violation of another government agency's terms of use," the advice said.

Immigration New Zealand has delayed putting visa applications for its student, visitor and temporary work visas solely online until if had satisfied the concerns of the Privacy Commissioner.

Documents show the Department of Internal Affairs, which runs RealMe, has no plans to change the site.

Immigration New Zealand said it was working on its own solution, and expected to have a business case completed by next month.

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