A government requirement on telecommunications companies and ISPs to make their communications interceptible by law enforcement authorities will be brought to Parliament early next year.
The measure, provisionally known as the Interception Capability Bill, provides an expected counterpart to the provisions allowing such authorities to intercept communications with a warrant, contained in the Crimes Amendment Bill No 6, still awaiting further debate in Parliament.
The idea for the interception capability provisions was first conceived by the previous government, and has been the subject of serious discussion among departmental officials for at least a year.
Reacting to remarks by Justice Minister Phil Goff at a post-Cabinet press conference last week, some media represented the measures as though they were part of new anti-terrorism precautions.
Spokespeople for Goff and Commerce and IT minister Paul Swain confirm that there is nothing new in the proposed measures.
Telecom has already made its networks interception capable. "Vodafone is still negotiating with the various agencies on the interception issue and no final agreements have been signed," says spokeswoman Alison Sycora.
Clear's Grant Forsyth says introduction of interception capability, both for Clear's network and that of its ISP ClearNet, is "only at the discussion stage.
"There is nothing at present that requires us to allow [authorities] to intercept our networks," he says, "but that may well come." They can today, with appropriate warrants, request Clear or ClearNet for information, he says.
"If they are voted additional powers, we will do as is legitimately demanded of us. We may not like doing it, but we'll have to smile and oblige."
TelstraSaturn is still "working with police" on the question, says its spokesman Quentin Bright.
ISPs are less advanced along this road than telcos, says Swain’s spokeswoman, but the plan to make them interception-capable too is not new, nor a reaction to the nervous post-September 11 environment. It’s a more general anti-crime weapon alongside any specifically anti-terrorism relevance it may have, she says.
InternetNZ executive director Sue Leader - emphasising that she is speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the organisation - is concerned that New Zealand may enact precipitate law and regulation against a background of terrorism concern.
"It shouldn't just happen here because the US does it," says Leader, an American. "I believe we [New Zealand residents] are not at risk and that [the question of protection against terrorism] is not internet-relevant."
The risk is that old concerns like interception capability will be "dusted off and fast-tracked." she says.
She has no objection to interception per se, "providing always that due process is followed," both in considering a law and allowing room for public debate on it, and in the provisions included in the law, for example, requirements to obtain warrants.
"I would be concerned if there were no oversight or control. If this is going to happen, then everyone should know it's happening."