6 Apr 2018

Little 'would be concerned' if profiling is discriminatory

8:21 pm on 6 April 2018

The Justice Minister says he would be concerned if Immigration New Zealand's profiling programme was discriminatory.

Immigration to New Zealand.

Immigration to New Zealand. Photo: RNZ

RNZ revealed this week that Immigration NZ has been running a pilot data modeling programme in the last 18 months, targeting overstayers.

It has been using age, gender, and ethnicity of overstayers to identify groups likely to run up hospital costs or commit crime.

The agency says all deportation decisions are lawful and rejects criticism that it's racial profiling.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said he was surprised to hear about the pilot programme.

"The magic and wizardry of computer software these days, who knows. Maybe it'll work, I don't know, but at the very least I would have thought it ought to have had ministerial blessing and it didn't seem to have had that.

Mr Little said he'd spoken briefly with the Immigration Minister who was well aware of the possible issues.

"I've simply said to my colleague Iain Lees-Galloway that from Justice's point of view we would have an interest in any government programme that looks like is it using data in a way that wasn't intended and that might lead to discriminatory, or prejudicial outcomes. He's certainly totally alert to that and when he has his briefing those will be questions that he will be raising.

"We will be concerned with anything that looks like discrimination or embedding discrimination and because of the growing body of work now on data protection and how that is used I think we'll be very keen to see, in terms of how this programme works, what it means in terms of the proper use of data that is surrendered by people.

Both the Human Rights Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner have asked officials for more information.

When asked whether it breaches human rights and privacy laws Mr Little said it was too difficult to say without all the details.

"But our laws are pretty clear about not discriminating. There are prohibitions against discrimination, and I think when you set up computer programmes that basically make arbitrary decisions based on data that it is fed then you have to look very carefully at what is happening and decisions that are resulted from it.

Mr Little also said there are questions around the role of algorithms informing government decisions on individuals.

"If it was arrived at by an algorithm that has simply arbitrarily attributed certain values to certain data and then come up with a conclusion that is not the way government's ought to be making decisions about individual people.

However Immigration New Zealand said the programme didn't include any algorithms at all and was more of an excel spreadsheet.

The Privacy Commissioner has said with data modeling changing at a fast rate it could be a good time to check our laws still safeguard people's rights.

Mr Little said the use of data, as well as its gathering and storage, went beyond the current privacy law but with a new privacy law currently before parliament, he said it was important it kept up with recent developments.

"We had to get that bill in because our current privacy laws are falling further and further behind but I've made it pretty clear that if there are new issues that the bill doesn't cover then we ought to work pretty hard to make sure that the new law when it does finally pass in a a few months time, does cover that."

Mr Lees-Galloway, who learned of the pilot programme from RNZ yesterday, will be briefed by officials on Monday.

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