Failings show need to improve snooping law

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am

The three-year-old law to regulate snooping on citizens by law-enforcement officers had a troubled, marathon passage through the legislature because of lawmakers' concerns about striking the right balance between the need to combat crime and the right to privacy. It passed after the government rejected more than 200 amendments proposed by the democrats. To safeguard privacy, therefore, it follows that officers should be seen to try to comply stringently with the law. Sadly, that is not reflected in attitudes reported by the judge who oversees their activities, Commissioner on Interception of Communications and Surveillance Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing.

In his annual report, Woo said he had found that some anti-corruption officers were reluctant to be supervised, and said they might share 'some kind of rebellious mentality' because they considered their job to be targeting criminals. In a separate case Woo accused an officer from an unnamed agency of being 'arrogant' and of 'bordering on recalcitrance' when asked to hand over records.

Abuses identified in the report, such as one involving a lawyer-client relationship and another of eavesdropping on an innocent person's phone calls by mistake, go to the heart of worries aired when the law was introduced. It is complex legislation, pushed through in haste to put snooping on a sound footing after the courts found certain operations were illegal under the Basic Law. It does not provide safeguards sufficient to protect fully the privacy of the individual. For example, the commissioner lacks the power to ensure that officers responsible for abuses are punished where appropriate, rather than being slapped over the wrist, and victims compensated.

The government refused to insert a sunset clause in the snooping law that would have required it to submit a new, hopefully improved, bill, say two years later, that would have addressed its shortfalls. Then it could have been debated in a calmer atmosphere. Instead it promised an internal review after three years, which is now under way. The review must be done thoroughly and transparently, with the aim of strengthening privacy safeguards.