Defining a snoop

Late last year a technician came into my home and installed an interception device on my phone line. Actually it's a DSL modem but, according to a supplementary order paper to the Crimes Amendment Bill, it's an interception device.

One day just before Christmas, while I was at work, a technician came into my home and installed an interception device on my phone line.

Actually it’s a DSL modem but, according to Paul Swain’s supplementary order paper to the Crimes Amendment Bill, it’s an interception device. The SOP describes such a device as “any electronic, mechanical or electromagnetic instrument, apparatus equipment or other device that is used or is capable of being used to intercept a private communication”.

The SOP does exclude hearing aids from this list, but quite frankly that’s one hell of a definition. It covers everything from a Geiger counter to my cellphone, and I’m not entirely sure if it rules out the robot puppy Poo Chi my brother gave me for my birthday (thanks a heap, Mark) since it quite happily “intercepts” any private conversation I’m having in the kitchen and sings an electronic ditty to let you know it’s not dead yet.

All of this disturbs me, but not as much as the definition of foreign intelligence and organisation, which includes any “company or body corporate that is incorporated outside New Zealand” or any local subsidiary of the same. Are we to spy on commercial activity now? Given the US government’s alleged willingness to hand over information gathered for security purposes to commercial ventures it favours, and given the New Zealand government’s keenness to do the US's bidding on matters of intelligence gathering, are we going to start spying on Pepsi or Airbus for the Americans?

And since most New Zealand companies seem hell bent on moving offshore, will that allow the government to keep tabs on them more efficiently since they would be classified as foreign organisations?

Swain would have you believe all this is being done so we can stop criminals using email to plot their nefarious crimes. However, he has no evidence that any such crime has actually been committed in New Zealand in this manner. Not one. Will they be in the future? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t mean we all should put up with this kind of far-reaching legislation in the meantime. I would like to see more restraints placed on the security services before they can intercept email or the like.

Besides reading up on the Crimes Amendment Bill while on holiday (it rained, okay?), I discovered the quickest way to get around Auckland city in a hurry is by Vodafone mobile. Here’s how you do it: first, make sure you have a phone that displays the name of the cell site you’re currently in. Then come over to my place and sit at the kitchen table and watch with amazement as your phone tells you you’re actually at Eden Park (presumably watching the cricket). A slight move to your left puts you in Mt Albert, closely followed by Sandringham, Balmoral and Mt Eden. Pass the phone across the table and suddenly you’re in Eden Terrace, Three Kings, Mt Roskill and, albeit briefly and I don’t know what this means, Heineken. While it was quite amusing at first (“Just popping out for a quick zoom around the town, dear”), it occurred to me that this is not helping the battery life of my phone and could go a long way to explaining why the damn thing always needs charging.

A quick conversation with colleagues about their holiday destinations also revealed one big issue for cellphone users over the break — coverage. The east coast of the North Island seems to be something of a black hole for both Telecom and Vodafone users and the Coromandel Peninsula played an amusing game of “it’s your turn to have coverage” for the Vodafone users I’ve spoken to. It seems anyone outside the main centres is less than well served. Vodafone has always been playing catch-up with Telecom in this respect and it was only six months ago I was told 2000 would be the last year Vodafone would be beaten on this issue. It looks like there’s still quite a way to go until that’s the case.

Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen and letters to the editor to Computerworld Letters.

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