Editorial: Oversight paramount in security legislation

We need systems of oversight and accountability that are much more robust and open to independent review. Photo / Thinkstock
We need systems of oversight and accountability that are much more robust and open to independent review. Photo / Thinkstock

Now that public submissions have closed on two bills before Parliament that will define our internet security, it is time for a more sober discussion.

That does not mean acceptance of any power proposed in the name of national security, or suspicion of anything a secret agency wants to do.

The bills - one giving the Government Communications Security Bureau access to phone and internet logs, the other requiring network operators to provide the means of access - are ripe for improvement by an all-party committee that begins public hearings today.

Crucially, the bills need to improve the political oversight of the security agencies. For too long, they have been answerable only to the Prime Minister of the day, with an informal understanding that the Leader of the Opposition will be briefed by the agencies when the Prime Minister thinks fit. That is not a recipe for effective accountability, it is a method of keeping something out of the political arena.

Other countries, notably the United States, have more formal bipartisan oversight of their agencies and theirs probably collect far more sensitive information than the GCSB or the Security Intelligence Service are likely to gather in New Zealand. There seems no reason that both agencies should not be answerable to a panel of senior National and Labour MPs.

Winston Peters, whose eight party votes could be needed to get these bills passed, would go a step further. He proposes an independent authority comprising appointees from the judiciary, the Defence Force and the police to oversee any surveillance of a New Zealand citizen or resident by the GCSB. That body would be told of every warrant authorised, warrants would need to state the suspected security risk and the intended method of surveillance, and the authority would have the power to review the warrant after three weeks.

That is a worthwhile contribution to the legislation and it must be hoped Mr Peters is serious. An authority drawn partly from the defence establishment and the police might not be sufficiently independent; each of them will sometimes be asking for the GCSB's assistance. A panel purely of judges might be preferable, but New Zealand First's proposal is worth developing.

John Key might be more ready than most prime ministers to share oversight of the security services. He had admitted to "brain fade" in at least one briefing from the GCSB on its role in the Dotcom case, and deputy Bill English suffered something similar when he forgot to mention a certificate he had signed in Mr Key's absence. If both had matters on their mind that seemed more important, it would be no wonder.

Routine security investigations are probably not subjects that need to take up a prime minister's time. It is hard to know why the responsibility was not delegated to a minister of justice or defence long ago. A paranoid prime minister - and there have been one or two - might want to keep the role but that is more reason to spread it.

Instant global communications have changed the nature and scale of threats to security and the possibilities for surveillance. Just as it would be wrong to deny the security services reasonable use of network data, so it would be wrong to ignore its possible misuse.

Data secretly gathered can harm people's careers and reputations without a person knowing the data exists, let alone having a right to challenge it. We need systems of oversight and accountability that are much more robust and open to independent review. The bills before Parliament do not yet measure up to the demands of the digital age.

- NZ Herald

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