State agency spy powers 'chilling'

By Patrick Gower

Human Rights Commission chief commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, said the Search Surveillance Bill was giving the powers away to a 'grab-bag of every possible agency'. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post
Human Rights Commission chief commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, said the Search Surveillance Bill was giving the powers away to a 'grab-bag of every possible agency'. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post

Sweeping powers to spy, bug conversations and hack into private computers could be given to a web of state agencies as diverse as Inland Revenue and the Meat Board

The Human Rights Commission yesterday warned Parliament of the "chilling" implications of a proposed law that would see the intrusive powers usually only available to the police extended to all agencies with enforcement responsibilities.

It said that under the law, council dog control officers would be able to enter homes to install a surveillance device and the Commerce Commission would be able to detain people.

Inland Revenue would get the powers to assist its tax investigations, while the Meat Board would get them to enforce breaches of export rules.

The Human Rights Commission chief commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, said the Search Surveillance Bill was giving the powers away to a "grab-bag of every possible agency".

It is the second major public watchdog to issue a warning about the bill after the Privacy Commissioner last week said it needed more safeguards.

Ms Noonan said the Government needed to justify to the public why it was giving the powers to each agency.

She said while the police were largely respected by the public, and subject to scrutiny and constraints, "most of these other agencies the community as a whole would notknow who they are - and suddenly they are all getting these powers".

Ms Noonan told the justice and electoral select committee search and surveillance were among the state's most coercive powers and open to abuse if sufficient human rights safeguards are not put in place.

The New Zealand Law Society also objected to the expansion of the powers, citing how the Overseas Investment Office or the Environmental Risk Management Authority could "remotely and covertly access an IT network".

National MP Chester Borrows, who chairs the select committee, told the Herald it also heard from Law Commission deputy president Warren Young, who wrote the bill and disagreed with the submitters.

He said Dr Young believed it did not give agencies any added powers but merely prescribed how they used what they already had.

Mr Borrows said if that was the intent, the submitters' views meantthe bill was obviously so unclearthat it would need to be amended.

Ms Noonan raised concerns about the bill's effect on journalists and their commitment to protecting sources.

She said the bill needed to more explicitly preserve the tradition that journalists should be able to protect confidential sources unless otherwise ordered by a judge.

WHAT'S IN THE BILL

THE POWERS:

Video surveillance, watching private activity on private property, installing tracking devices, detaining people during a search, power to stop vehicles without a warrant for a search, warrantless seizure of "items in plain view", power to hack into computers remotely, power to detain anyone at scene of search.

WHO WILL GET THEM:

Every agency with enforcement responsibilities, such as: Inland Revenue, Meat Board, local councils, Overseas Investment Office, Accident Compensation Corporation, Environment Risk Management Authority, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Pork Industry Board.

Source: Human Rights Commission, New Zealand Law Society.

- NZ Herald

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