Law enforcement officers need more training on interception and surveillance, says watchdog, after rise in reported irregularities

  • Commissioner on interception of communications and surveillance says poor planning and lack of familiarity with code of practice may be to blame for errors
  • Judges granted fewer permissions for interception operations in 2017 compared with the previous year
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 8:23pm

Hong Kong’s surveillance watchdog on Tuesday urged law enforcement agencies to step up training of officers on interception and surveillance operations after a rise in reported irregularities last year.

Azizul Suffiad, the commissioner on interception of communications and surveillance, said that 18 cases of non-compliance or irregularities were found in 2017, compared to 11 reports the previous year.

As a result, three officers faced disciplinary action in the form of verbal advice or verbal warnings.

The law enforcement agency involved was not named in the report.

The watchdog said negligence, a lack of training and a lack of familiarity with the code of practice could be to blame for the mistakes, although it found no evidence of bad faith or deliberate disregard for the statutory provisions.

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“Basically, a law enforcement officer is generally trained to detect or prevent crimes, and to catch criminals. When they are performing interception work, their look out is mainly to obtain intelligence,” Suffiad said.

“The Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance also requires them to be vigilant enough to eliminate privileged information, such as information subject to legal professional privilege … That is not easy for some officers and, therefore, high-powered training needs to be given to these officers.”

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The watchdog reviews interception and convert surveillance conducted by members of the police, Independent Commission Against Corruption, Customs and Excise Department and the Immigration Department.

Law enforcers must obtain permission from a panel judge for postal and telecommunication interception, or highly intrusive surveillance.

In 2017, panel judges granted 1,303 written applications for interception, refusing just one, compared with 1,416 permissions the previous year. The duration of the approved interception ranged from less than a week to about 38 days.

Panel judges also permitted all eight applications for surveillance, with the longest operation lasting about 30 days.

A total of 170 individuals were arrested as a result of the authorised operations.

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Among the 18 non-compliance or irregularity cases, an officer, who was second-in-command of the interception unit, and the supervisor were twice found to have failed to preserve interception products.

The law enforcement agency first issued verbal advice to the pair as the officer did not retain the interception products from a three-day operation.

The two made the same mistake in another operation, which prompted the law enforcement agency to transfer them from the interception unit before the commissioner reviewed the case.

“The agency concluded that the mistake was due to misconception and oversight on the part of the officer concerned and the failure of the senior officer to cross-check the accuracy of the information,” the report read, adding that the agency proposed to give a written admonishment and a verbal warning, respectively, to the officer and the supervisor.