The private investigator involved in infiltrating the Save Happy Valley Coalition and other movements last week insisted he was doing nothing illegal.
However, he appears not to have been familiar with the provisions of the Crimes Act regarding unauthorised access to computers.
Radio New Zealand reporter Geoff Robinson asked Gavin Clark, of private investigators Thompson Clark, to confirm reports that he had asked his prospective mole “whether he had security codes, computer codes to get into their [the Coalition’s] systems”.
Clark replied “absolutely” and confirmed that fact later when questioned by Computerworld.
Robinson envisaged using those codes to enter private forums on the SHVC site as though he or his staff were members, or alternatively to ask the mole to enter the computer systems on their behalf, he told Computerworld.
“But we never got any codes,” so the question of how to use them was academic, Clark says.
Informed that the former strategy might fall foul of Section 252 of the Crimes Act, which prohibits accessing a computer system “without authorisation”, Clark said “good point” and thanked Computerworld for the information.
If he had asked the mole to access the confidential parts of the system, he would have been on more secure ground, since the section includes an exemption (Subsection 2) which says the prohibition: “does not apply if a person who is authorised to access a computer system accesses that computer system for a purpose other than the one for which that person was given access.”
The mole, as a member, would have been allowed to access private areas of the system but the investigators would not qualify. However, in the event, “that situation did not arise”, Clark says.
Breaches of s252 carry a penalty of jail for up to two years.
Steve McHugh, a spokesman for the Registrar of Private Investigators and Security Guards, a branch of the Ministry of Justice, says applicants for registration as private investigators “need to have a couple of years experience in the industry” and be generally of good character. There is no professional association that helps enforce standards of knowledge and competence, he says.
“It boils down to the competence of the individual and there’s no way of legislating for that,” he says.