Keeping an eye on those who snoop on us

The commissioner overseeing covert eavesdropping by law enforcement officers has raised concerns about how it is being done. His words should be heeded

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 1:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 1:25am

The city’s surveillance watchdog has strongly criticised law enforcement agencies for overstepping the boundaries of specific judicial authorisations for operations against suspects, whether negligently or deliberately. To put this in context it is worth recalling, 10 years on, the controversy over legislation that put covert surveillance and eavesdropping on a sound legal footing. Officials argued it was needed to give law enforcement the necessary means to fight serious crime, and rejected concerns that there were inadequate safeguards of the right to privacy guaranteed by the Basic Law. The core of the government’s assurances was oversight of the law by a commissioner for interception of communications and surveillance, as well as a panel of judges to authorise snooping operations.

Surveillance watchdog finds 10 breaches in agency spying

The commissioner’s annual reports are therefore carefully scrutinised by lawyers and civil liberties activists. The latest discloses only nine cases of non-compliance or irregularities last year out of 1,428 applications granted for interception, resulting in disciplinary advice or warnings being issued to six officers. In one, however, Commissioner Azizul Suffiad, a former high court judge, has rightly deemed as unacceptable the surveillance of two targets who were sitting in a car, when it was authorised only in public places. To some that may sound like a quibble, but it is unauthorised abuse of privacy nonetheless.

If law enforcers flout the law it only brings it into disrespect. Suffiad not only slammed the officers for a lack of vigilance and inadequate performance, but found contradictory statements from a superior to be “disconcerting”. He expressed fears about a lack of a mechanism for timely reporting and monitoring of covert operations, which might lead to “grave consequences” – presumably for rights and justice. This raises the question whether tougher punishment is needed to deter abuses. Suffiad said existing penalties were sufficient. But law enforcers need to take his concerns very seriously if they truly value surveillance as an indispensable tool for fighting crime in the internet age.