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Police snooping needs tight rein says report

3 January 2001

By Eugene Bingham, political reporter, New Zealand Herald

Plans to give police and spy agencies the power to hack into computers and intercept electronic communications will lead to unprecedented snooping, the Privacy Commissioner has warned.

In a report calling for limitations to be placed on law enforcement bodies, and greater accountability, Bruce Slane opposes the "pernicious" practice of police hacking into databases.

He has recommended that if police are allowed to hack into personal computers, they should need more than a search warrant.

A law change making hacking and other computer snooping illegal except when carried out by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) or the police is before the law and order select committee.

Associate Justice Minister Paul Swain introduced the legislation in November, saying the agencies needed the powers to battle crime and terrorism.

Mr Slane reported to the Government on the changes before Christmas, welcoming the clamp-down on unauthorised access to computer systems but questioning whether there would be enough controls on state agencies.

"It is easy to think of the interception of communications or the accessing of a computer as affecting only the target of police interest," he wrote.

"However ... many other people [are] affected by interceptions or computer-related searches.

"Trawling or browsing through a myriad of personal information [would be] authorised on an unprecedented scale.

"A single interception warrant can, for instance, authorise listening into hundreds of conversations involving scores of individuals beyond the targeted individuals."

The new law would clear the SIS to carry out a sting on a database once the agency had an interception warrant.

Police would need only a search warrant.

Mr Slane did not believe that a search warrant, issued by a justice of the peace, was strong enough.

"Search warrants are not designed for regulating covert investigations or surveillance," he said.

"Hacking into a person's computer should be, if allowed at all, very much a last resort.

"Search warrants, unlike interception warrants, do not require the intrusive technique to be used only as a last resort."

Mr Slane said yesterday that the police should have to obtain an interception warrant from a judge too.

Hacking into a computer and intercepting electronic communications was far more intrusive than police saying, "We have got some evidence this guy's got stolen property."

The report also calls for the GCSB to be omitted from the exemption clauses until it becomes a statutory body like the SIS.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has said the bureau would be written into law this year.

Mr Slane said it should not be given more rights until the public was aware of its accountability and powers.

"Unlike the SIS, any interceptions which may be carried out are not subject to a statutory warrant process.

"This will not be put right until the GCSB's establishment is set out in legislation."

Forwarded by Taking Control.

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