Watchdog reports four surveillance breaches

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2007, 12:00am

Wrong phone tapped for a week, and judge kept in dark, but case called inadvertent

Four breaches of the covert surveillance law were committed in the first five months after it took effect in August last year.

They included tapping the wrong person's phone for a week, but all were inadvertent, the Commissioner on Interception of Communications and Surveillance said in his first report yesterday.

A total of 526 authorisations were issued during the period, leading to 177 arrests, the report said.

The commissioner, Justice Woo Kwok-hing, said the four irregularities were caused by 'careless inadvertence and not deliberate flouting of the law or with any ulterior motive'.

The incident in which the wrong phone line was tapped had happened because the person who executed the operation, who was not part of a law enforcement agency, had made a mistake.

'It is just like a telephone operator who mistakenly connects to the wrong number and causes an unauthorised interception,' Mr Justice Woo said.

According to his report, the agency suspected a wrong interception and discontinued it after seven days. It reported to one of the three judges handling surveillance and interception applications the following day that there was 'no further value' to the operation, and the authorisation was revoked.

The agency did not mention in its report to the judge recommending the operation be halted that the wrong phone line had been tapped.

Mr Justice Woo admitted this was not satisfactory.

'It should have included that in the report to apprise the panel judge of the full picture,' he said.

Such a mistake was down to the officers involved being unaccustomed to the new practices the law brought in, since operations had previously been undertaken in great secrecy, he said.

Mr Justice Woo said both he and the agency had attempted to identify the wrongly intercepted line and its subscriber after the error was discovered, but the identity of the person could not be ascertained.

The other irregularities involved misrecording a date when revoking an authorisation and two instances of telephone lines being intercepted in advance of the dates authorised. The commissioner described these as 'genuine careless mistakes'.

Mr Justice Woo did not name the agencies involved.

Of the authorisations granted, 449 were for interception, 30 for type 1 surveillance and 47 for type 2 surveillance. The first two operations need authorisations from judges, while type 2 surveillance requires only executive authorisations, which are granted by designated police, customs, immigration and ICAC officers. The three judges authorised to approve applications refused 67 requests.

No applications were sought in relation to matters of legal professional privilege, which exists between a client and his qualified legal adviser, or journalistic materials, the report said.

In his recommendations, Mr Justice Woo said misunderstandings about his authority had occurred, and suggested that his title and that of his office be amended because they were contrary to the objective of the ordinance.

'My post should be called the Commissioner on Protection against Unlawful Interception of Communications or Surveillance,' he said.

Four cases involving irregularities

1 Surveillance authorisation revoked after three people arrested, but officer wrongly stated date for discontinuing operation

2 and 3 Two telephone lines intercepted for two days before authorised effective date

4 Wrong telephone line intercepted for seven days before mistake discovered

Source: Commissioner On Interception of Communications and Surveillance