Editorial: All parties must ensure spy bill is balanced

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The GCSB bill is an exception. Its origins in the Dotcom extradition proceedings ensured it plenty of political attention. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The GCSB bill is an exception. Its origins in the Dotcom extradition proceedings ensured it plenty of political attention. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The public is not accustomed to seeing a prime minister sitting alongside leaders of other parties in Parliament, as happened in the hearing of submissions on the bill to expand the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau. Politics are usually put aside for matters of national security and largely for that reason.

The GCSB bill is an exception. Its origins in the Dotcom extradition proceedings ensured it plenty of political attention. Nevertheless, it concerns national security and the public has a right to expect all parties will make responsible contributions.

One party, New Zealand First, did so at the bill's introduction. Now its leader seems to be holding back. Back in May when John Key expressed an interest in Winston Peters' suggested oversight panel and wanted to meet him for a discussion, Mr Peters said, "Why would I do that? We can work this through on the facts and on the legislation." He now criticises Mr Key for holding just such a discussion with Peter Dunne, whose vote would enable the bill to pass.

"The Prime Minister has botched this up from the word go and he is still doing it," said Mr Peters this week. He is right that legislation such as this needs to pass with more than a bare majority. Mr Key needs to hear the opposition parties' concerns and do something about them.

Labour leader David Shearer has criticised the limits of consultations. He says he has not been included and would like the Prime Minister to "pick up the phone". Labour wants a public inquiry before the bill is passed but has not made this a precondition of a bipartisan approach to cybersecurity. That should be the goal.

The task has not been helped by international disclosures that have raised the political temperature. But the use of "metadata" by the United States National Security Agency was less of a surprise in this country thanks to the Kitteridge report into the Dotcom case.

Metadata is a record of who calls whom, from where and when, not what they said to each other. The risk in any secret intelligence gathering is that careers and rights can be harmed by innocent associations and those harmed might not know the intelligence exists. The risk is probably heightened when the data does not tell what information was exchanged.

The bill legalises the position of the bureau when it acts on a request from agencies such as the police or the Security Intelligence Service for logs of communications involving a New Zealand resident. It would allow domestic agencies to benefit from the public investment in the GCSB and avoid a needless duplication of cybersecurity equipment.

The legislation would enable the bureau to assist "a range of public entities as well as private sector organisations such as national infrastructure providers and organisations of national significance". The bureau's objectives would not be confined to national security but include "the economic wellbeing of New Zealand". Here it goes further than remedying problems exposed after the Dotcom failings.

To intercept communications to or from a New Zealand resident the bureau will need authorisation from both its minister and a commissioner of security warrants. The minister must be satisfied that information gained will not be used for purposes outside the bureau's functions. Mr Key says it would not cover the Dotcom case, although it is hard to be confident of that kind of assurance.

All parties in Parliament can help ensure the needs of national security are balanced with adequate safeguards for privacy and civil rights. It is a rare opportunity to see how constructive each, including the government, can be.

- NZ Herald

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