Terrorism law passes with computer search measure intact

Parliament has passed the Counter-Terrorism Bill, along with its contentious clause compelling IT staff and computer users to provide law-enforcement officers with computer and network passwords.

Parliament has passed the Counter-Terrorism Bill, along with its contentious clause compelling IT staff and computer users to provide law-enforcement officers with computer and network passwords.

The change to the bill, which went through yesterday, means passwords will have to be provided even if evidence found as a result incriminates the person concerned.

This removal of a right regarded in many countries as fundamental — for example, the US's Fifth Amendment — has been applied not only to suspicion of terrorism offences but a broad range of other, lesser, offences covered by the Summary Proceedings Act.

Justice minister Phil Goff argued that the provision was aimed at violent crime, which would blend seamlessly into terrorism, or at offences such as drug trading, whose proceeds could be applied to terrorism.

The only significant objector to the measure in Parliament was the Green Party, through MP Keith Locke, who has suggested it will be the thin end of the wedge opening all manner of computer-held information to government scrutiny. ACT’s Stephen Franks pointed out the amount of confidential personal — though not commercial — information typically kept on computers. However, in the end, he voted for the clause, with only the Greens’ nine votes registered against.

Legal IT expert Judge David Harvey has also pointed to the risks of the measure.

Retiring Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane mentioned the measure in his submission on the bill, but only in passing. He preferred to concentrate on the potential abuse of electronic tracking devices.

During the debate, Franks said the unreasonably broad definition of a “tracking device” was an example of the technical lack of knowledge and competence of the legislation’s drafters. Taken literally, the provisions controlling such devices could require members of the public to obtain a warrant for possession of a GPS device such as a navigation aid or cellphone, or, he jokingly suggested, a telescope or a flag on the back of a bicycle.

Even Goff conceded that the definition might benefit from later amendment in the light of experience.

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