Watchdog regrets no wiretap oversight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am


A retiring government watchdog has not been allowed to access police wiretaps after 21/2 years of fighting for the power - and he may never get to.

The government yesterday could only promise to propose a law amendment to the Legislative Council by the first half of next year. The timing means the commissioner on communications and surveillance interceptions, Justice Woo Kwok-hing, would not be allowed to listen to the archives before his tenure ends in August.

'This power that I have been seeking to be granted to me and my staff would amount to a very powerful deterrent' against unauthorised or illegal activity by law enforcement agencies, Woo said.

The issue sparked debate in 2006, when the courts expressed outrage at the lack of legal procedures to regulate wiretaps and covert surveillance. A law was enacted and the watchdog listened to the recordings just once before it was forced to stop in 2008. At the time, the administration raised doubts about the legitimacy of listening to wiretaps.

The doubts stemmed from a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that stated such a law did not entitle the privacy commissioner there to compel parties to reveal documents under lawyer-client privileges.

In Hong Kong, Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong told a Legco special panel yesterday that the government 'did not oppose' Woo from accessing the recordings and did not intend to challenge him using the Canadian case. Lee said he would study the possibility of granting such a right to Woo under the present legal framework.

Woo, who did not attend the meeting, said earlier that the government had once rejected his request on privacy grounds. He said: 'Regarding the invasion of privacy of the target, I'd say it is close to nonsense.'

He found seven cases of non-compliance regarding unauthorised wiretaps last year, down from 12 in 2009. Legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan said that although the number of cases dropped, the situation of senior officers covering up their subordinates was getting worse.