Watchdog wants law expanded to protect people from prying eyes

As high-profile television presenter Alison Mau pleads to be left alone by the media, the Law Commission has called for greater privacy protections, including tougher restrictions on harassment and covert surveillance.

In a review of privacy law tabled in Parliament yesterday, the commission recommended a new law to cover surveillance and tracking devices.

It also recommended reducing the threshold for granting restraining orders in instances of harassment, but rejected a new law to explicitly address invasions of privacy.

The report comes less than a fortnight after Mau hit out at the media on the TV One morning show Breakfast, alleging she and her family had been stalked for at least a month by a photographer from Woman's Day magazine.

"In my mind, that's a gross intrusion of our privacy and frankly, more than a little creepy," she said.

The magazine's publisher, ACP Media, denied following Mau and her family, saying it would never intentionally step over the boundaries in researching stories.

Law Commissioner Sir Geoffrey Palmer, SC, said in the report that privacy law should offer greater protection, given the threats posed by new technology.

"Surveillance is not well regulated by current law. Technology is developing rapidly and continually creating new ways of invading our privacy.

"The challenge is to ensure that protection does not come at the cost of weakening other vital personal and public interests, such as freedom of information," he said.

The report recommended a Surveillance Devices Act, similar to those in several Australian states, which would allow victims to sue for damages.

The act would create new offences for installing a tracking device, trespassing to install a visual surveillance or interception device, and using a visual surveillance device to observe or record the interior of a dwelling.

It would also encompass the existing Crimes Act offences of covert filming and intercepting private communications.

Using information obtained through a breach of the act would be illegal, which could open up the media to lawsuits if they were to publish photos or videos obtained through illegal surveillance.

Defences would include using a surveillance device to uncover illegal activity, and consenting to a tracking device being installed.

The report also recommended changes to the Harassment Act, including lowering the threshold for granting a restraining order to a single prolonged instance of harassment, and creating a new offence for keeping a person under surveillance.

The defence of "lawful purpose" would remain, which would cover most media activity, as it does now.

The commission acknowledged that the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras was increasing in both the public and private sector, but found current Privacy Commission guidelines were adequate for the time being.

- NZ Herald

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