Government forced to take urgent steps over Ministry for Culture and Heritage data breach

The Government has been forced to take urgent steps to stop its ministries using unapproved contractors for digital projects. 

The embarrassing and potentially dangerous data breach at the Prime Minister's own Ministry for Culture and Heritage has prompted interim changes, but there have been no resignations yet.

With immediate effect, Jacinda Ardern has ordered some ministries including Treasury, Defence, Housing and Transport, to only contract government-approved companies for digital projects.

Passports, drivers' licences and birth certificate details were exposed to fraudsters after the serious digital privacy breach at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage on Sunday. 

It was revealed 302 young people supplied their details to it as part of an application for the Tuia 250 Voyage trainee programme. 

The details were uploaded to an externally contracted website which was then compromised, exposing their details.

Anaru Barton, one of 302 people, applied for the programme, pitched as a once in a lifetime voyaging opportunity. He ended up with a very different experience.

"My driver licence with my photo ID and my birth certificate is obviously out there and I don't know who has it," he told Newshub. 

"It must still be out there I have no idea who's got it in their hands."

Despite the website being taken down, Newshub was still able to find what appeared to be applicants' personal information online. 

When Newshub asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern if the applicants' information was still out there, she said that's "something they're still working on". 

John Edwards, the Privacy Commissioner, said people are vulnerable to identity theft if all their identity documents are exposed. 

"There's a possibility they could be subject to fraud and in some cases there may be even physical security concerns," he said. 

The breach comes just months after some top-secret Budget 2019 information was accessed on the Treasury website and published by National ahead of its official release date.  

And more recently, the Government's chief Statistician Liz MacPherson resigned following a review of New Zealand's 2018 Census which identified shortfalls in the 'digital first' approach. 

This time it's at the ministry the Prime Minister is responsible for, and National leader Simon Bridges said the "buck stops with" her. 

Ardern said on Monday it's a Government department, "so I stand there and have to take responsibility". 

The Prime Minister isn't expecting the ministry's chief executive to resign, but she's not ruling out someone losing their job over the mess.