Neither the Police nor the Security Intelligence Service will confirm or deny that they have intercepted email traffic among private citizens or organisations in the past.
The issue has arisen in internet users’ responses to the “anti-hacking” legislation currently before Parliament's law and order select committee. Exemptions to allow the Police, SIS, Police and other departments to intercept electronic traffic have raised the hackles of privacy champions, who say the exemptions give new power to the agencies.
According to subscribers to the Internet Society (IsocNZ) members' mailing list, in theory there has been and will be nothing to prevent those agencies – or anyone else – intercepting email or website requests, until the new law is passed.
So have they intercepted email until now? “That bears on our operational areas, which we do not talk about [in public],” says an SIS spokeswoman.
All releasable information on the topic of interception, she says, is in the SIS’s annual report, issued earlier this month. This includes a brief "statement on warrants" saying during the year ending June 30, 2000, 14 "domestic [within New Zealand] interception warrants" were in force for an average length of 158 days.'
"The methods of interception and seizure were listening devices and the copying of documents," says the SIS. Since "interception" is bundled with "seizure" in this paragraph it is not possible to ascertain whether the documents copied included emails. But under the present state of the law, a warrant would not be required simply to intercept and copy emails.
A Police spokesman was similarly reticent. “That is part of our covert operations,” he says, “and we don’t discuss those.”
What might seem an obvious candidate for exemption from the interception provisions – the censorship compliance team at the Department of Internal Affairs – did not apply to government for an exemption to the proposed law.
“It’s not really our area," says chief censorship compliance officer Steve O’Brien. “Up to now, we’ve been operating in the public domain”, such as chat groups which anyone can join, and which are frequently used to swap files of possibly objectionable material. “We’d prefer to keep within those boundaries,” he says.