Tomorrow, 1 July 2021, is “POPIA Day”, as the sudden crop of salivating consultants and “experts” are calling it.  POPIA is South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act. POPIA becomes fully effective on 1 July 2021.

This got me thinking back to 2003.  

I was very relieved and excited when, in that year, the South African Law Reform Commission published its Issue Paper: 24 – Privacy and Data Protection.

Privacy violations

I was relieved because I had just completed an excellent course on telecommunications and information security.  My eyes were opened to the consequences of breaches of privacy and what happens when personal information falls into the wrong hands.

I learned that, during World War 2, when Germany invaded countries like the Netherlands or Belgium, the Nazis would seek out administrative offices, such as the local mayor’s office, in the towns and cities they occupied.

Why you may ask, would they do this?

They would do this because the records that were held were often very detailed: names, ages, number of family members, religion.  

Religion?  

These records were a trove, revealing where the Jewish families lived, where the Catholics were, who were Communists, and perhaps even who the local “homosexuals” (a term I deeply detest) were.

I also learned that during the grim and dark days of apartheid, state security agents would use powerful cameras to take pictures of people in the privacy of their homes.  They would “steam open” the letters they wrote to each other, to read their innermost and most personal thoughts and opinions.

It was crystal clear to me that personal information, used without a lawful basis and in the wrong hands, had very serious consequences.  People were imprisoned, they were tortured and they were murdered because their personal information was not respected and protected.

POPIA compliance

Some may argue that these examples are from long ago, and are no longer relevant because “things have changed”.  No, they have not.

"Personal information, used without a lawful basis and in the wrong hands, had very serious consequences." - Lucien Pierce, Phukubje Pierce Masithela Attorneys (Tweet this | Share this via WhatsApp)

More recently, journalists such as amaBhungane’s Sam Sole have had the privacy of their communications invaded.  The consequences of this could have been the exposure and possible harm of their journalistic sources.

So, when you complain about having to comply with another “useless” law; or get caught up in the hype of the “POPIA clock” ticking down to the deadline (the real experts may joke about the clock,  but know that compliance is a journey), or opt for a quick-fix “POPIA-in-a-box” solution just to deliver a façade of compliance, go back and read Issue Paper: 24 – Privacy and Data Protection.  It will remind you why POPIA is not just another hyped-up compliance exercise.

POPIA is there to protect us because the misuse of personal information has real-life consequences.  Take it seriously.

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