Privacy rights vs security interests | The Jackal

12 May 2013

Privacy rights vs security interests

Today, Stuff reported:

An American expert who came to New Zealand to write a report on border security claims he was subject to heavy-handed tactics by intelligence agencies that seemed determined to shut him down.

Craig Lebamoff has worked on border security around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

He was working for the high-powered Department of Homeland Security when he won the prestigious Sir Ian Axford Fulbright Fellowship in public policy, and elected to have a stint as an "embedded attorney" with New Zealand's security, intelligence and police agencies. His aim was to write a thesis on border security.

But the New Zealand sabbatical quickly turned sour after seven months and his thesis was never published after the New Zealand Government refused to clear its release.

Obviously Lebamoff wasn't in agreement with how New Zealand's spying agencies are conducting their business and they couldn't handle a bit of constructive criticism from a respected academic.

Lebamoff insists there was nothing in his report that compromised New Zealand's security and everything he cited was in the public domain. He is also adamant that regular updates were provided to his host agency mentor at NZ Customs, Peter Taylor, and that his report was reviewed by two lawyers at Customs to check the information cited was publicly available, as well as subject to regular reviews and checks by other agencies.

But when he circulated a draft of his report for feedback and comment it set in train a series of bizarre events.

He received an email from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warning it "wouldn't be responsible for the consequences" if he published the report. Within the hour, the SIS phoned and accused him of using sensitive information, Lebamoff says. They also warned him of a possible investigation.

Both MFAT and the SIS have refused to comment.

Craig Lebamoff was specifically researching how New Zealand balances privacy rights and security interests, which is very interesting indeed. I wonder what exactly the government is trying to hide?

Considering he was doing his research at the same time widespread illegal spying was being conducted on New Zealand citizens, perhaps the report highlights the fact that the right to privacy has been systematically breached by overreaching spying agencies?

Clearly the balance between our privacy and upholding national security is out of kilter with the advent of new legislation to legalize spying on New Zealand citizens. It's also obvious that the increased powers, staff numbers and budgets of our spying agencies far exceeding those assigned to biosecurity should be questioned.

How large exactly New Zealand's spying agencies are in comparison to our border security agencies the government will not say, but I presume their secretiveness is because the public would likely be aghast at the revelation of just how enormous, unaccountable and all powerful New Zealand's spying agencies actually are. Perhaps that was also a part of Lebamoff's research, which would have likely resulted in a recommendation to reduce their funding in favour of increasing border security efforts.

Being that there are obvious priority issues, it's little wonder that the agencies themselves weren't pleased with the report and National isn't going to release it, even though it's of public interest. Certainly getting a couple of names wrong isn't a genuine reason for burying it in a pile of political double speak.

As well as trying to keep a lid on the Lebamoff report, National is refusing to provide details concerning the actual number of spies employed by the government. In April a letter was sent to the Prime Minister to request information concerning New Zealand's intelligence agencies:

Please provide me with information relating to the Security Intelligence Service, Government Communications Security Bureau, Organised Crime Intelligence Unit, Financial Intelligence Unit, Strategic Intelligence Unit, National Drug Intelligence Bureau, National Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Identity Intelligence Unit, Threat Assessment Unit, Police Terrorism Investigation and Intelligence Group, Special Investigation Group, National Assessments Bureau, Domestic and External Security Group, Directorate of Defence Intelligence and Security and the Joint Geospatial Support Facility.

I formally request information on the total number of staff in each of these organisations per year from 1998 to 2013? Please also divide that total into separate positions within each organisation and the annual remuneration for each position? Please also provide the total budget for each organisation per year from 1998 to 2013?

That request was made under the Official Information Act 1982 (PDF), because the number of employees being funded by the taxpayer in each of these agencies should obviously be public knowledge. However the Prime Minister's office has refused to provide that information, claiming the annual reports are where such statistics can be attained. Unfortunately that's not the case.

John Subritzky even cites section 9(2)(a) of the act, saying there's no public interest in releasing the withheld information concerning the positions and amount of remuneration paid to each group of employees. The Director of the Office of the Chief Executive also claims that collating this information would take too much time and, ironically, that releasing such information would also be a breach of the employees right to privacy.

Such information would normally be collated for budgeting reasons and should therefore be readily available. The upshot being the request is declined not because of the reasons stated, but because the government wants the share size of our spying agencies to remain secret.

To decline such formal requests for information is normal practice for the current government, being that they're a failed administration with lots and lots to hide. The Lebamoff report is just one more example that shows National doesn't have its priorities in order. In my opinion, the right for a law abiding citizen to have privacy and the nations biosecurity should always be put ahead of the the interests of the spooks, especially in peaceful times.