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Big Brother Will Be Watching You - The Search And Surveillance Bill

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Recently, the National Government decided to take up the previous Labour administration's Search and Surveillance Bill. This bill would effectively make George Orwell's 'Big Brother' character blush.

Already both the Human Rights Commission and the Privacy Commissioner have condemned the bill. Human Rights chief commissioner Ros Noonan has called the proposed law "chilling" while privacy watchdog Marie Shroff said it could be "invasive" of people's privacy.

So, why the fuss over this bill? Don't we reasonably tolerate some degree of monitoring, particularly of criminal activity, already?

Well, the Search and Surveillance Bill goes much further than any other piece of legislation ordaining surveillance. In fact, it gives more state agencies the power to tap into your personal conversations, hack (legally) into your computer and install hidden cameras to watch your every move.

Therefore, just forget about the usual suspects, namely, the police and the intelligence agencies, possessing these powers alone anymore. Think about other bodies that you wouldn't suspect might have the need to eavesdrop who will get this power if the bill passes. For example, these include, the Inland Revenue Department, Commerce Commission, the Reserve Bank, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Environment Risk Management Authority and even the Pork Industry Board. Local councils could also get the authority to engage in covert surveillance.

While you might not think of your local council or the Pork Industry Board as being the equivalent of MI5 or the CIA, these agencies could even undertake warrantless surveillance. Other powers proposed in the legislation include the right for agencies to seize items 'in plain view', detain a person at the scene of a search, covertly watch a person undertaking private activities and install tracking devices without the intended target knowing about it.

Over the years, we have been subjected to stories about the abuse of state power, particularly when law enforcement and intelligence agencies have undertaken search, seizure and surveillance activities. We have heard of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and their legally authorised 'black bag' raids into the homes of anti-free trade activists. Many people were rightly concerned about the nature of the so-called 'anti-terrorism' raids against Tuhoe activists in October 2007. And last year, it was revealed that peace and environmental groups had been actively spied on by the police anti-terrorism branch. Even Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) fraud investigations have allegedly used heavy handed surveillance tactics in ways that have discredited that agency.

These instances of civil liberties having been infringed by law enforcement agencies should make us all concerned about the proposed law.

Giving more state agencies seemingly limitless powers to covertly observe individuals is dangerous. In a (supposedly) democratic society, we should cherish our freedoms and seek to protest when they are under assault. And right now is such a time.

State agencies, like councils and producer boards, might act irresponsibly when undertaking search or surveillance activities. Furthermore, the question can be asked as to why more state agencies need the authority to conduct these types of activity. Perhaps, it might be a good idea to look at limiting the number of agencies who would receive these powers and look at other ways that they might carry out enforcement activities. One idea might be that agencies would work more collaboratively with the police who have both expertise and experience in these areas.

Right now, the Search and Surveillance Bill is a dangerous piece of legislation. The justice and law reform select committee currently considering the bill needs to heavily amend it or even recommend that it be withdrawn. Otherwise, 'Big Brother' in the form of any one of the various agencies of the New Zealand state could be watching over you.





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