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Rush is on for more privacy intrusive laws - UN investigator Charles Mabbett
31 March 2016

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Around the world, governments are rushing through legislation in an effort to legitimise the use of privacy-intrusive measures by security and intelligence services, says the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy in his March report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR).

Professor Joseph Cannataci noted in his report (which you can download here) that recent events in Europe and the Middle East have meant security concerns were once again high on the agenda for many governments. He will be in New Zealand as a speaker at our Privacy Forums during Privacy Week in May.

Countering terrorism

Prof Cannataci says the main aims of such legislation have been countering terrorism and organised crime, as well as other crimes like child pornography and paedophilia. In many of these countries, “though unfortunately not all”, the proposed law changes resulted in public debate about the adequacy of oversight, the difference between targeted and mass surveillance, proportionality and cost effectiveness.

The Special Rapporteur's UNHCR report says he is engaging with law enforcement agencies and security and intelligence services around the world in an effort to better understand their legitimate concerns and recognise best practices which could be usefully shared. His work will help identify policies, practices and legislation of doubtful usefulness or which present an unacceptable level of risk to privacy nationally and world-wide.


Prof Cannataci observes that a small but growing number of states treat cyber-space as another theatre of operations for their security and intelligence agencies and they appear unwilling to engage with each other on issues which have a direct impact the privacy of citizens, irrespective of their nationality.

“While not necessarily the primary target of cyber-security and cyber-espionage measures, the ordinary citizen may often get caught in the cross-fire and his or her personal data and on-line activities may end up being monitored in the name of national security in a way which is unnecessary, disproportionate and excessive,” the report said.

The Special Rapporteur’s report is his first to the UNHCR after he took office in August 2015 after the United Nations created its special privacy investigator role in recognition of the need to bolster privacy as a fundamental human right.

New Zealand

We’re having our own debate about intelligence agencies and oversight.  For example, the GCSB and SIS have powers to access individuals' personal information without a warrant, and without having to report it because of a specific exemption in the Privacy Act. You can listen to Privacy Commissioner John Edwards on RNZ’s Morning Report programme discussing the recent review of our intelligence agencies by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy.

In parallel to Prof Cannataci’s observation of international trends for governments to widen their surveillance powers, many of the Cullen-Reddy review’s recommendations are likely to form part of proposed legislation which will affect and change the way our intelligence agencies work. In New Zealand’s case, one of the recommendations concerns tightening the rules by which intelligence agencies can access personal data.

Maintaining public trust

Oversight of our intelligence agencies is a critical element in maintaining the trust and confidence of the New Zealand public. The Privacy Commissioner, together with the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, the Chief Ombudsman and the Auditor General, has a responsibility in overseeing our security and intelligence agencies.

Oversight and transparency fulfils a public expectation. How our intelligence services go about their business is a subject of considerable public interest. In a 2014 UMR poll for our office, 52 percent of those surveyed said they were concerned about surveillance by New Zealand government agencies.

Privacy Week

This is why we think it is an important issue for Privacy Week. We have invited Prof Cannataci to New Zealand to speak at our Privacy Forums because we believe it is a powerful way to promote the right to privacy and the need for clear and effective oversight of intelligence agencies.

Prof Cannataci will give keynote presentations at both Privacy Forums. Come and here what he has to say. Register now to attend. The Privacy Forums are in Wellington on 11 May and Auckland on 12 May. Visit our website for more information.

Image credit: via Times of Malta.com


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