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Cyber-cops set bells ringing

29 July 2000

Matthew Dearnaley, NZ Herald

Political activists say the police have enough trouble distinguishing between lawful protest and criminal activity in the real world without being let loose in cyberspace.

Word that Government officials are preparing a law change to let police pursue criminals through the internet by intercepting their e-mail is ringing alarm bells with civil libertarians and other activists.

The Internet Society shares their concern, and does not want the police to be given power to routinely monitor e-mail on the mere off-chance of catching criminals.

Information Technology and Associate Justice Minister Paul Swain wants to exempt the police from the provisions of legislation against computer hacking which he hopes to take to the cabinet.

The police can now gain interception warrants from the High Court to eavesdrop on phone calls, but the Telecommunications Act has no provisions extending this to electronic communications.

Police believe criminals talk to each other by e-mail to avoid phone taps.

Mr Swain insists any proposals to allow internet snooping will be as tightly controlled as phone interception warrants, and will be referred to a select committee to ensure safeguards for the privacy of innocent people.

But the anti-free trade Gatt Watchdog group says the police criminal intelligence service has already overstepped the mark in its surveillance of political activists and should not be given further powers.

Spokesman Aziz Choudry said having power to intercept email would give the service "carte blanche" to spy on a wide range of community groups, political organisations, trade unions and individuals "of interest" to it.

"Recent history suggests the usual glib official assurances that such organisations and people will not be snooped on by state security and intelligence services will be worthless," he said.

On a lighter note, he acknowledged it might at least save taxpayers the cost of dressing up police in "fake moustaches and dreadlocks" to infiltrate political meetings.

Mr Choudry cited the High Court's award in May of $20,000 to Christchurch university lecturer Dr David Small for an illegal police search of his property after a bomb hoax connected with an Apec ministerial meeting as an example of police exceeding their powers.

The court was told the police intelligence service had taken an interest in Dr Small since he wrote articles about Pacific independence issues for Corso in the 1980s.

Justice Young did not accept the search was a payback for Dr Small's chance discovery of Security Intelligence Agents in Mr Choudry's home, which was also under surveillance.

But he said the worst aspect of the case was that Dr Small's home was searched simply because he was an activist "in what he regards as social justice causes" and without reasonable grounds for suspecting him of a crime.

The judge said there was a difference between maintaining a legitimate interest in political activists and equating their activism with a propensity to commit crimes.

Internet Society chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, a lawyer, said he supported the Government's aim of pursuing criminals, but intercepting e-mail would be much harder than tapping phones.

E-mail was split into many data packets, and it would be very difficult to target specific messages without vacuuming up others sent by law-abiding citizens.

Meanwhile, Parliament's justice and electoral committee will decide soon whether to accept a request from 24 groups and individuals to investigate the role of the police intelligence service in light of the Small case.

Police chiefs were unavailable for comment, but Police Association president Greg O'Connor said he felt no need to apologise for safeguarding society against the possibility of a political assassination.

He noted that a political protest group, Greenpeace, was quick to demand strenuous police efforts in tracking down the French agents who sank the Rainbow Warrior.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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