Liberty Watch Yearly Review 2011

The past year has seen continuing challenges to the values of privacy, not just from the state, but employers, teachers, and even parents seem to be increasingly disregarding the notion of a right to privacy. It was reported in May that the Government was considering using bracelets for monitoring home detention that could detect the presence of alcohol use through secretions in the sweat, and in a trial of a scheme in the Bay of Plenty police officers were paying visits to known recidivist drunk drivers, even though no complaints had been made just to let them know that police are “keeping an eye on them”.

 

Schools

In the same month it was also reported that the Secondary Schools Principals Association President announced that most schools now used network managers and teachers to monitor their pupils’ social network sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, for evidence of misbehaviour. Schools were increasingly using other ways of monitoring their pupils outside school activities. Breathalysers and sniffer dogs were increasingly being used by schools to check people for alcohol and drug use at school balls. The teachers, seemingly being increasingly encouraged to see pupils as potential criminals and themselves as acting in the role of police, were given more powers to search students and their belongings, including cell phones, diaries and laptops, and issued with guidelines on how and when to carry out these searches.

The police were concerned about some of these increasing intrusive developments when in September they refused to carry out random sniffer dog searches claiming that they were in danger of breaching the children’s civil rights. The police stated that they were happy to assist principals, but only where there was reasonable suspicion that pupils were carrying weapons or illegal drugs.

 

Video Surveillance

Employers at Wellington International Airport were found to be using a private investigator to secretly filming employers in their coffee room. One employee who was sacked after being accused of misconduct was given a chance to get his job back after the Employment Court ruled that evidence gathered in such a way was illegal. A law change under the Private Investigators and Security Guards Act has now made such activity legal. The covert use of surveillance by police officers was also bought into question when a ruling in the case of those arrested in the Urewera Raids went against the police and their use of evidence that had been collected through the use of devices placed illegally on private land. The government later passed legislation to suspend the judgment’s applicability to 40 trials and 50 police operations that were already underway.

 

Apparently, no space is too private to be considered open for surveillance. Wainuiomata High School was just one school that was reported to installing cameras in toilets. The Kaikoura District Council was also reported to be doing the same thing.

 

Alcohol and Drug Monitoring

There is a seemingly growing desire to screen everyone’s behaviour. The alcohol advisory group of New Zealand (ALAC) wanted to extend the British Royal College of Psychiatrists advice, that all those aged over 65 visiting a G.P. should be screened for alcohol use, to cover the whole population. In a similar move the Social Development Minister Paula Bennett backed drug testing of welfare beneficiaries, amidst claims from the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) that up to 50% of the workforce were now routinely screened for drug use.

 

Spying on Each Other

The state and employers cannot always observe our behaviour, so individuals are being encouraged to act and think as spies. Software was made available in New Zealand called MyFone, which lets parents remotely see all the numbers called and answered on their children's phones, and the content of all texts. A device was also made for sale and marketed for parents to track their children’s use of a car including its speed and location history.

We were all encouraged to spy on our neighbours when the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) announced the launch of a website where it asked the public to confidentially and anonymously pass on any information that may pertain to threats on New Zealand’s security and way of life. The online form states that “as part of the community you may have information which can contribute to defending and enhancing New Zealand’s security…”. The Security Intelligence Service was also given stronger powers in new legislation passed in July, which led to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) expressing concern about the Act’s diluting the accountability of the already often secretive SIS.

 

Police Use of Weapons

The appointment of a new Police Commissioner, Peter Marshall, saw the relaxation of the rules surrounding the police and their access to firearms. In May it was announced that every frontline police car was to carry semi-automatic rifles and pistols. Similarly, the access to tasers was relaxed. Police were now able to routinely carry a taser if they felt they were heading into danger whereas previously they had to get permission from a superior. In July, The Sunday Star Times reported that Tasers had been used 102 times in dealing with suspects since their introduction in March 2010. Somewhat concerningly, they also noted that they had been accidently discharged 108 times in the same period.

 

Race Relations

The issue of race continued to bubble away under the surface of New Zealand society. July saw reports that two bus drivers had refused to allow two Muslim women, who were wearing a veil, admission onto their bus. The bus company claimed the men weren’t racist but merely suffered from “maskophobia” and had been sent for counselling. Nevertheless the HRC said that the incidents appeared to amount to racial discrimination.

The Human Rights Annual Review of Race relations published in March noted that 2010 had seen an increase in the number of complaints made to the HRC about racial discrimination, mostly because of the response to broadcaster Paul Henry’s controversial comments about the Governor General. The report, however, expressed positive comments about the growth of Te Reo Maori, the cultural diversity of Parliament, and the settling of historic Treaty of Waitangi claims, although it voiced concern that stricter laws surrounding the punishment of criminals, such as the three strikes law and the removal of the prisoners’ right to vote, would disproportionately affect Maori. On a similar line, the lobby group, Rethinking Crime and Punishment, called for an inquiry into why the rate of imprisonment of Maori is so disproportionately high. They pointed out that over 40 per cent of adult male Maori have received a prison or community based sentence, at some time in their life, and that this is six times the rate of non-Maori.

 

Sexual Equality

Research by the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) described New Zealand as the best place to be born female in the Commonwealth, but it noted that women earn 72 per cent of the wages of men. The Greens raised the profile of the issue of gender inequality of pay with a bill that proposed that a woman doing the same work as a man should have the right to know his pay. The Equal Opportunities described it as disturbing that a large number of women did not know if they were receiving equal pay. In a response to the Green’s proposal, the head of EMA, Alasdair Thompson, found himself dismissed from his position for his suggestion that women got paid less because their productivity was lower as many of them “took sick days once a month”.

 

Internet

The notion of Internet access being a human right came under the microscope with the passing of a law that aimed to prevent the illegal sharing of copyrighted files. Under the new law, anyone accused of letting their Internet connection be used to share such files could be fined with very little opportunity to defend themselves.

 

Summary

It has to be noted thought that a succession of reports throughout 2011 gave New Zealand positive ratings in comparison with the situation in other countries. The most recent, The Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, listed New Zealand as fifth in a table of 165 nations measured across five categories, namely, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, how government functions, political participation by the public, and political culture. However despite the good reputation New Zealand enjoys, there is no room for resting on laurels, and the eternal vigilance of a civil liberties group such as the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties is always necessary if we are to protect the rights we have.

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