15 Jul 2015

Beef up spies' resources for greater accountability

7:17 pm on 15 July 2015

If the public expects greater transparency from security and intelligence agencies, their resources should be boosted accordingly, says the Privacy Commissioner.

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB)'s spy base at Waihopai, near Blenheim.

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB)'s spy base at Waihopai, near Blenheim. Photo: SUPPLIED

John Edwards made the comments during his address to the Institute of Intelligence Professionals' conference in Wellington today.

However, despite the emphasis on transparency by many of those attending, all sessions and keynote addresses were closed to the media.

A review of the legal framework under which the Government Communications Security Bureau and the Security Intelligence Service operate is under way.

It was instigated after intense media and political scrutiny of the conduct of the GSCB following its surveillance of Kim Dotcom and the subsequent law change.

Mr Edwards said the public got a very skewed view of what the agencies do.

"Because we've really only in the last 40 years had public scrutiny of things where things go really wrong, so the average view that people in the public have is of the examples such as Ahmed Zaoui, Aziz Choudry, such as Kim Dotcom, where the agencies have been seen to have been in breach of the law.

"And that I don't think does their reputation any good and I don't think it enhances the confidence that people should have in those organisations."

Which means, he said, there is an even greater need for transparency.

"If we are going to expect the agencies to be able to respond to new demands for accountability, they have to be funded for it and at the moment I think some of the extra scrutiny is really taking a toll on their resources."

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards Photo: SUPPLIED

Mr Edwards said the activities of security and intelligence agencies had never been such a prominent part of the public consciousness.

The Human Rights Commissioner, David Rutherford said there are two areas he would like to see scrutinised by the review.

"The process by which surveillance is warranted, who should do that - should it always be judges? - and we'd be very keen on it always being judges.

"And I think the other area is having a look at getting the legislation clear for people; because even if you're an expert you shouldn't have to wrap a wet towel around your head and employ an expensive lawyer to understand the legislation."

Dr Jim Rolfe, the Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, said he'd like to see more legislative consistencies across the intelligence agencies.

"At the moment there are different powers, different authorities to act according to circumstances and according to the agency - a coherent system is what we should be aiming for.

"Now whether that coherence can be achieved through a single piece of legislation or through ensuring different legislation doesn't contradict across the legislation ...at the moment it's a patchwork quilt."

Meanwhile, protesters tonight gathered in front of the venue hosting the conference, calling for the GCSB and SIS to be abolished and for New Zealand to withdraw from the Five Eyes agreement.

People urged to rethink security, privacy

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said people need to take a more sophisticated approach to their security and privacy.

Mr Edwards said people needed to reject what he called "insultingly simplistic false choices" between privacy and security.

"In my area, privacy, at its extreme, I hear even quite senior and supposedly sophisticated individuals present the community with a stark choice."

It was wrong to argue that the choice was between people keeping their privacy and risk being blown up on a bus, or giving it up so intelligence services could keep them safe, he said.

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