Closer watch on watchers needed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am


The ability of law enforcers to snoop on suspects is an important weapon against crime. The fact that there have been more than 1,800 arrests since the enactment of a covert surveillance law in 2006 shows it has been an effective tool. But such power must be exercised with utmost care to avoid infringing people's privacy. To guard against abuses, an independent watchdog with real power is essential.

The annual report released by the Commissioner on Interpretation of Communications and Surveillance offers a snapshot of the extent to which our city's law enforcement agencies abided by the rules last year. As in the past, cases of unauthorised wiretapping were found, although the number dropped from 12 in 2009 to seven. But the decrease provides little comfort. As commissioner Mr Justice Woo Kwok-king pointed out, some cases are serious in nature. For instance, an officer was only given a verbal warning for 51 unapproved interceptions. Despite fewer cases, the level of awareness among law enforcers remains too low. The disclosure of repeated violations underlines the importance of a watchdog to enhance compliance. To enhance effectiveness, it must be given sufficient power. But ironically, the commissioner has not been given access to the tapped information in order to be able to verify whether the explanations provided for the transgressions are reasonable. The commissioner has been fighting for such a power for two-and-a-half years. It is disappointing that the government appears to be still dragging its feet.

The law was far from ideal when it was rushed through five years ago to put covert surveillance for criminal investigations on a sound legal footing. Safeguards pushed by the pan-democrats in 200 amendments were all rejected. With a government review in the pipeline, the opportunity to strike the right balance should not be missed. Due consideration should be given to empowering the watchdog so that it can monitor officers' actions effectively.