NZ Gov’t won’t need warrant to intercept e-mail

New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) won’t be required to apply for a high court warrant should it wish to intercept e-mail communication, according to the newly introduced GCSB Bill.

The GCSB does not have any legal standing in New Zealand, despite its ongoing operation since 1955, but the new bill will change that. It outlines the role and responsibilities of the GCSB and requires it to present an annual report to the minister who will then brief the intelligence and security committee.

Traditionally the minister in charge of intelligence and security has been the prime minister and it is Prime Minister Helen Clark who is the sponsor of this bill.

Under the legislation, if the GCSB wants to hack into a computer system it doesn’t even need a warrant, only an “authorization” from the minister in charge of intelligence and security.

Warrants are used if the GCSB needs to gain access to a property to plant an “interception device” to listen to conversations. In those cases however, the minister in charge of intelligence and security, not a judge, issues GCSB interception warrants, according to the bill. The warrant will last for up to a year and GCSB can apply for a warrant if “the information is not likely to be obtained by other means” and “the value of the information to be obtained justifies the particular interception” among other requirements.

The police, on the other hand, must apply to a high court judge for a warrant before being allowed to hack into a suspect’s system or intercept communications. That warrant must satisfy all the requirements outlined in the Interception Warrant Regulations and the Crimes Act which, among other things, requires the police to prove to the judge that the case could not go any further without the use of an interception device. Such warrants are only good for 30 days.

The GCSB also features in the Crimes Amendment Bill is also before Parliament at the moment. The bill introduces four new crimes relating to the misuse of computer systems or data and specifically outlaws unauthorized access to networks and computer systems. In a supplementary order paper added to the bill, the police, GCSB and Security Intelligence Service (SIS) are specifically exempted from these crimes.

The select committee report into the bill has made a number of minor changes to the provisions. Associate Minister of Justice Paul Swain is happy with the changes made and believes they strengthen the bill.

“They’ve done a good job of looking at the bill independently and objectively and I agree with their conclusion,” says Swain. The select committee report concludes by saying, ” we consider that overall the bill and the SOP will strengthen privacy protection and does not significantly increase the powers of the State to intrude on individual privacy”. Swain says the bill simply extends the powers bestowed on security services into “cyber-space” rather than giving them new powers.