Snooping targets to be told later

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am

Draft law approved by Exco spells out notification rules

The Executive Council yesterday endorsed a draft bill on covert surveillance that will require the authorities to inform 'some but not all' of the targets of phone taps and covert surveillance once an operation is over.

Notification will only be carried out if it does not disturb or interrupt any investigation.

Details of the bill will be disclosed to legislators tomorrow.

According to a Security Bureau source, the draft legislation preserves an original proposal that the chief executive appoint a panel of judges to scrutinise and approve applications to bug or spy on suspects.

The government needs to have a new law passed in five months, before the expiry of a grace period given by High Court judge Michael Hartmann, who ruled last month that covert surveillance had no legal basis.

The source said the draft bill had already taken into account comments by the legislature.

It was intended to strike a balance between people's rights and the ability of law enforcement agencies to conduct an investigation, the source said.

Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun, who chairs the Legislative Council security panel, said he was disappointed.

The proposed appointment system for the panel of judges to oversee covert surveillance applications was questionable, he said.

'The system cannot ensure that these judges will enjoy total independence,' Mr To said, adding that there was room for executive manipulation.

Mr To agreed, however, that not every target of covert surveillance should be informed.

Officials consulted legislators several times last month on the planned new law.

Figures provided by the Security Bureau showed that police and anti-graft officers eavesdropped on people or used hidden surveillance devices in 348 cases in the last three months of last year, an average of more than three cases a day.

Lawmakers asked whether this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Mr Justice Hartmann last month ruled in a judicial review launched by lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung that the government's use of covert surveillance had no valid legal basis but suspended the effect of his judgment for six months to allow the government to legislate.