Those who enforce the law must be trained
- Following 18 cases of non-compliance or irregularities last year, Hong Kong’s surveillance watchdog has called on agencies to ensure their staff are aware of procedures
Twelve years after the passage of the law that governs snooping on targets in criminal investigations, the surveillance watchdog has found it necessary to call on law enforcement agencies to step up the training of officers in compliance with judicial authorisations of operations. This follows 18 cases of non-compliance or irregularities last year, compared with 11 in 2016 and nine in 2015, which resulted in disciplinary action in the form of verbal advice or warnings to three officers. It is reassuring, however, that Azizul Suffiad, commissioner on interception of communications and surveillance, found no evidence of bad faith or deliberate flouting of the law. He said negligence and a lack of training and familiarity with the code of practice could be to blame.
The watchdog reviews interception and covert surveillance by police, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Customs and Excise Department and the Immigration Department. All must obtain permission from a panel judge for postal and telecommunications interception, or highly intrusive surveillance.
Despite the commissioner’s reassurance, the rise in irregularities has to be cause for concern. In this regard it is worth recalling the controversy over the legislation to put eavesdropping and covert surveillance on a sound legal footing and provide law enforcement with an important tool to fight crime. Officials rejected concerns that there were inadequate safeguards for the right to privacy, citing oversight by the commissioner as well as a panel of judges to authorise snooping operations.
To put non-compliance with safeguards into perspective, the 18 irregularities last year were all that arose from 1,303 written intercept applications and eight surveillance applications. But failure of law enforcers to comply with the law can only lead to disrespect. To safeguard individual rights without compromising enforcement, training for officers from all four agencies needs to be stepped up because, as the commissioner’s report said, the ordinance “requires them to be vigilant enough to eliminate privileged information, such as that subject to legal professional privilege … that is not easy for some officers [and] high-powered training needs to be given”.