It’s back – the Search & Surveillance Bill returns

Guest editorial by Val Morse

An interim report on the Search and Surveillance Bill was issued by the Justice and Electoral Select Committee last week. The report is an admission that the bill will confer enormous new powers onto 70+ government agencies. 

The report confirms that police will get a load of new powers: video surveillance where police trespass on private property will be legal; the circumstances in which audio bugging will be legal will dramatically increased from what it is at present. The threshold for warrantless searches is being lowered, as are the circumstances for setting up roadblocks.

Along with police, some 70 government agencies – from IRD to the Overseas Investment Office and the Pork Industry Board – will be able to apply to conduct video and audio surveillance and install as yet undeveloped surveillance devices into your home, car, community centre, church, marae, school, place of business, etc. While the report indicates that these new powers will be slightly smaller than originally envisioned in the Bill, the overall thrust is the same: a massive increase in state power to surveil ordinary New Zealanders. 

Fundamental problems remain with the Bill

One of the fundamental problems with this bill is that it makes on-going 24-hour-a- day surveillance equivalent to a one-off search. That conclusion is not accepted; the two are very different. The ability to watch and/or listen to people on a continuous basis is not the same thing as capturing evidence at a distinct moment in time.

Secondly, the bill dramatically shifts the centrality of video and audio surveillance to being the first and primary means of law enforcement and crime solving. The privacy implications for ordinary people from video and audio surveillance are profound. The current law says that audio surveillance can be utilized effectively as a last resort when other methods have not worked or are not available. We would argue that even this tight restriction is being abused by police. 

Thirdly, the bill makes no differentiation between video and audio surveillance. Again, most people would not agree with that conclusion. The old adage, 'A picture speaks a thousand words' illustrates well why video surveillance is indeed a far greater invasion of privacy than audio surveillance. It is without hyperbole to say that legalising trespassory video surveillance would be ushering 'Big Brother' into people's living rooms.. 

The authors of the Bill seek to balance 'human rights' with the State's right to violate them. The State, however is the one making the rules, and as such, there is no 'balance'. When our 'human rights' are not convenient for the police or other enforcement agencies, they are simply and routinely ignored. We believe that the so-called 'Oversight' provided by review clauses, the Privacy Commissioner or Ombudsman are simply incapable of holding any of these agencies to account.

Some of the most disturbing provisions

Warrantless Searches – Circumstances in which 'enforcement officers' can search with no warrant are being expanded, now only 'suspicion' will be required to conduct a warrantless search.

Plain view searches – Grants 'enforcement officers' the right to seize items in plain view. We believe that this will apply to computers and other data storage devices. Once seized these items can be copied in their entirety.

Remote access searches of computers – agencies will be empowered to search computers (including for things like web-based email)

Examination orders – These orders require someone to report to the police for questioning. The right against self-incrimination is totally compromised by this law. You may have to go before a judge to have them determine if you are incriminating yourself, thereby incriminating yourself…a catch-22.

Production orders – allow 'enforcement officers' to sit back and order you to produce documents on an on-going basis that you have or will have in future if they suspect that an offence has been committed

At 442 pages long, the 'interim report' does not go any way to making this complex piece of legislation easier to understand or more accessible to many New Zealanders.

Get Active and Stop the Bill!

Submissions can be made until 3 September 2010. We would encourage people to send a submission, regardless of how long or short it is, indicating that you do NOT support this bill.

We must take a stand against this horrific invasion into our fundamental freedoms!

Interim Report: download the PDF

Email submissions to: Justice and Electoral Select Committee Clerk

Contact the Campaign to Stop the Search and Surveillance Bill:

Campaign website: