The establishment of New Zealand’s first centralised electronic database through the Wanganui Computer Centre Act focused attention on the state’s ability to gather information on its citizens.
The National Law Enforcement Data Base – the ‘Wanganui Computer’ – allowed Police, Ministry of Transport and Justice officials to share information via hundreds of terminals around the country. It recorded motor vehicle registrations, driver’s and firearms licences, traffic and criminal convictions, and personal information about large numbers of New Zealanders. The Serious Fraud Office and local authorities were later given access to this information.
In 1976 the Wanganui Computer was ground-breaking. Police Minister Allan McCready described it as ‘the most significant crime-fighting weapon ever brought to bear … in this country’.
Critics were unconvinced. Civil libertarians protested, likening it to something from George Orwell’s 1984. On 18 November 1982, 22-year-old anarchist Neil Roberts was blown up by his own gelignite bomb as he tried to enter the computer centre.
Eventually justice-sector agencies began to develop in-house computing capacity. The Whanganui centre closed in 1995 and the system was decommissioned in 2005.