APEC 2021: Privacy Commissioner warns MPs foreign powers could 'intercept communications'

The Privacy Commissioner is warning against legislation that would give expanded powers to foreign states during APEC 2021 in Auckland, including the ability to potentially intercept New Zealanders' communications. 

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC 2021) Bill passed its first reading in November, with support from Labour, National and New Zealand First - but the Green Party voted against it citing "overreach" concerns

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards told a select committee on Thursday he felt lawmakers had "achieved quite a lot in terms of striking the balance and ensuring that powers in this legislation are proportionate". 

But he said the one element that "remains of concern for us" is the interception provision for jamming of telecommunications frequencies.

"We understand the policy behind that is to prevent the operation of drones and threats to security by devices that could be remotely controlled over those frequencies.

"Our concern is that technology is unable to distinguish between the kinds of signals that are used to control those sorts of devices and the signals that will be used to convey personal communications of people who are not suspected of any security threat whatsoever but are going about their business in the region."

He said the legislation would be stronger if the interception powers were signed off by a judicial officer and under warrant rather than allowing the Police Commissioner to authorise the deployment of the devices. 

"Because this technology is unknown we are potentially allowing foreign authorities to have access to intercepted communications from New Zealanders."

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards presenting to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards presenting to the Foreign Affairs Committee. Photo credit: Facebook / Foreign Affairs Committee

The co-leader of the Outdoors Party Sue Grey also raised concerns about the legislation over its ability to "allow foreign persons to bring guns into New Zealand who don't have approved fit and proper status". 

Grey also questioned how transparent the legislative process has been, telling the committee there is a "disconnect between the views of the public and the outcomes we're getting". 

She said she does not think New Zealand should be hosting APEC at all. 

National MP Gerry Brownlee told Grey he "took issue" with her suggestion that the process has not been transparent, telling her: "We are here today going through this process."

Brownlee added, "I'm not meaning to have an argument with you, but New Zealand is a country that enjoys a lifestyle far in advance of anything the domestic economy alone could provide for us.

"We are a trading nation. We trade into much bigger populations. Something like APEC, we actually get far more out of those relationships than in many ways we contribute."

Grey shot back, telling Brownlee: "That's a political view."

Co-leader of the Outdoors Party Sue Grey.
Co-leader of the Outdoors Party Sue Grey. Photo credit: Facebook / Foreign Affairs Committee

She added, "Our view is that New Zealand has very important resources of our own. Our people look at the disparity in the wealth of our people... A huge proportion of our young people are mentally disturbed.

"And yet, we live in paradise. It should be paradise - we have sunshine, we have every resource we need, but something has gone wrong with the political approach we've taken over the years.

"We stand for the people to try and get some balance back into the thinking."

The legislation - which would expire at the end of November 2021 - will allow foreign protection officers to "apply for the authority to carry and possess a specified weapon during the leaders' event period, along with a permit to import the weapon".

Grey said her concern is that "a foreign country that is protected by state immunity can bring guns into New Zealand because if they do abuse our laws and they do cause harm, they can't be prosecuted". 

An official at the select committee stepped in to confirm that foreigners will be able to be prosecuted under the law. 

National MP Gerry Brownlee chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee.
National MP Gerry Brownlee chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee. Photo credit: Facebook / Foreign Affairs Committee

Grey pointed to the 1985 sinking of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship in Auckland as an example of how New Zealand's "laws and our people were abused".  

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman thanked Grey for bringing up the Rainbow Warrior as an example. 

"It really does crystallise the crux of this, which is that different nations and different security forces have an idea about what protesters and freedom of expression might be and what that looks like.

"They have shown a propensity for taking that into their own hands committing violence - and that was France... I do think that example does emphasise what we want to prevent, which is overstep."