New spy law must protect privacy rights - Labour

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Privacy Commissioner says the proposed changes to our spy laws are a "considerable improvement" on the status quo, but there are few areas he wants to see tightened up before they become law.

Prime Minister John Key unveiled the new legislation on Monday, saying the Bill would have its first reading in Parliament on Thursday.

It brings the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau under a single Act, and gives the GCSB a mandate to spy on New Zealanders.

Under current legislation the SIS can put citizens and residents under surveillance but the GCSB, which has more sophisticated eavesdropping equipment, is restricted to gathering foreign intelligence except when it's checking out cyber crime.

Under the new laws both agencies will have the same warrants system, which has been strengthened into a "triple lock" process involving the Attorney-General, the commissioner of warrants, and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards says the "thorough" changes go further in terms of transparency and oversight than many expected.

"In many respects it's a considerable improvement," he told Paul Henry on Tuesday morning.

"For example, the information privacy principles - which are part of the Privacy Act - have never applied to the intelligence and security agencies, with a couple of minor exceptions... [the Bill] goes further than the Law Commission recommended in 2011, it goes further than Dame Patsy Reddy and Sir Michael Cullen recommended last year, but it's what we've been advocating.

"The principles will apply to the intelligence and security agencies, but there will be an exception where necessary for the functions of the agencies - and I think we need to have a closer look at that and maybe tighten it up."

It also places "very considerable" hoops for agencies to jump through to spy on Kiwis, except in cases deemed to be a threat to national security.

"There is a section which defines national security... but I guess the agencies are saying 'if you screw us down too tight, you might rule out legitimate activities that we need to undertake but we hadn't anticipated'."

Labour says it will support the Government's changes to laws covering the security agencies through to the select committee stage, but it wants stronger provisions to protect privacy.

"The legislation controlling the work and scope of New Zealand's intelligence and security agencies needs to be updated so they can adapt to a rapidly changing environment and new challenges," Labour leader Andrew Little said.

"However, this must be balanced with the privacy and rights of all New Zealanders...it does not get the balance quite right."

Mr Little says he's confident changes can be made which will satisfy his party when the Bill goes to a select committee for scrutiny and public submissions.

Mr Key says the agencies have to operate under legislation which enables them to be effective in the face of a growing number of cyber threats and the rise of terrorist groups internationally.

The Bill is the Government's response to a statutory review of the laws covering the agencies, carried out earlier this year by Sir Michael and Dame Patsy. 

They released their report in March, saying restrictions that stopped the GCSB spying on New Zealanders should be scrapped, but the change shouldn't be made without putting a high-level warrant process in place. They also said the two security agencies should be covered by a single Act of Parliament.

Mr Edwards says the review was overdue.

"We've seen these agencies grow up out of a particular geopolitical context, and their laws have remained pretty static. I think a sort of first principles review was very timely."

Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey says there needs to be more robust protection for the rights of Kiwis.

"Those of us who have been monitoring both the SIS and the GCSB over a number of years will remain highly sceptical about claims of increased accountability and transparency in their processes.

"There needs to be effectively a total review of the objectives that goes beyond the Cullen and Reddy review engaged."

Speaking ahead of Monday's cabinet meeting, when the Bill was approved by Cabinet, Mr Key said there were good reasons for authorising the GCSB to carry out surveillance on New Zealanders.

"In the end, there are people that want to do some things we need to both understand and, secondly, potentially stop," he said.

NZN / Newshub.