11 Aug 2015

SIS warns openness comes at a cost

9:37 am on 11 August 2015

The Security Intelligence Service has warned greater openness about its activities has prompted the people it is monitoring to change the way they communicate, to avoid being snooped on.

But its director Rebecca Kitteridge said the SIS could be more open without unduly compromising its effectiveness.

Una Jagose and Rebecca Kitteridge.

Una Jagose (left) and Rebecca Kitteridge. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The SIS and the Government Communications Security Bureau, and their legislation, are being reviewed by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy.

Public submissions to the review close this Friday.

Ms Kitteridge said she accepted there was greater public expectation that the spy agencies would be more open about what they did.

"I can totally understand why people want to know about what we are doing and that what we are doing is authorised and proportionate and lawful. I completely get that. And we've got quite a long way to go.

"I think there's a lot more that we could do to put more into the public domain and we are working on it now," she said.

But the SIS is already more open about its activities than it has been in the past and Ms Kitteridge said that had had an effect.

"Even the amount that's been made public so far has meant that a lot of people have changed the way that they communicate in order to avoid that kind of, any kind of monitoring that we might be doing."

But Ms Kitteridge does not shy away from the need for the SIS to be more open.

"If we don't have public understanding and support for what we do then we might as well pack up. And although that comes at a certain cost, I think it is more important than the possible compromise and we can minimise the effect of the compromise on our effectiveness," Ms Kitteridge said.

Acting director of the GCSB Una Jagose agreed the electronic spy agency could also tell the public more about what it did, but without giving away how it did it.

She said, for instance, it was possible the GCSB could provide more information about just where threats to the country's cyber security were coming from.

"We need to get into that position. I'm not sure that we're there yet. I mean we certainly, our cyber defence work we see considerable attacks and attempted attacks on networks. We see that every day.

"Attribution is not always straightforward: who is doing it, and why? But I think we need to work harder on that point," Ms Jagose said.

Legislation 'deserves some attention'

Ms Kitteridge said the legislation governing the SIS also needed to change.

She said the existing law referred almost solely to warrants needed to intercept communications, not to the old fashioned information gathering role carried out by the service's agents.

"The authorising framework for all of that work is not in the legislation and I think if you're thinking about clarity and transparency for the New Zealand public that might be something that deserves some attention and I personally think that would be helpful."

Ms Jagose said there might be room for change in the GCSB's legislation too, particularly when it came to the definition of private communication.

Critics have argued that the definition in the existing law is ambiguous and opens the way for the GCSB to intercept communications most people might expect to be private.

Ms Jagose said the review was looking at the matter.

"One of the review's I think very challenging and important aspects is to look at this definition.

"What does it mean when we talk about private communications? What do we really mean about that? I look forward to their conclusions because it's quite fascinating. How can we define that in a way that satisfies most people that we've got the balance right?"

Both Ms Jagose and Ms Kitteridge said greater transparency would help build more confidence in the agencies.

They said the public should also be reassured by the greater scrutiny they now faced from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

The review being carried out by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy is likely to make further recommendations aimed at strengthening public confidence in the spy agencies.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs