Terms in draft law on surveillance 'too vague'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2006, 12:00am

The use of the expression 'public security' to justify covert surveillance was yesterday brought into question by the Hong Kong Bar Association, which said the term was too vague and ill-defined to be included in the proposed law to regulate such monitoring.

The draft law on interception of communications and surveillance provides that law enforcement agencies may only seek authorisation to conduct such operations to prevent or detect 'serious crime' or to safeguard public security.

'Serious crime' is defined as any offence punishable by at least seven years' imprisonment in the case of phone tapping. For the use of hidden surveillance devices, it is defined as any offence punishable by at least three years' imprisonment. But the lawyers' group said the scope of 'serious crime' was too broad and the bill should specify an 'enumerated list of offences'.

Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes said that while Article 30 of the Basic Law stated that privacy of communication may only be infringed by authorities to 'meet the needs of public security or of investigation into criminal offences', no Hong Kong law gives law enforcement authorities the power to protect 'public security'.

'I am still puzzled by the wording ... it is clearly not national security,' he said, and asked whether the government's insistence on vetting the judges who would be charged with authorising surveillance applications was related to the concept of public security.

'There is no case for vetting judges because, by definition, a judge can be trusted with sensitive information,' he said.

Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai agreed that public security was a 'rather confused concept'.

Lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said inclusion of the term suggested that even where there is no serious crime, covert surveillance may be exercised by law enforcers, broadening the scope of the law.