Politics / Internet

SIS expansion of data mining powers not off the cards - Andrew Little

10:09 am on 24 March 2021

The government has not ruled out handing over more powers to the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) for mining and using people's personal data.

Minister in charge of the SIS Andrew Little acknowledges New Zealanders are about security agencies gaining unfettered access to personal data. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

A recently released report, authored by an independent expert, found faster and wider harvesting of data was a priority for bolstering counter-terrorism efforts.

The review was carried out in mid-2019 by an independent expert from a Five Eyes partner.

It said the threat from extremists was speeding up and fragmenting. "Signals of intelligence activity are becoming increasingly weak, well hidden and fragmentary."

It recommended the SIS explore "the government's view and appetite regarding some level of data mining aimed at identifying emerging threats".

"The review[er] understands there will be some reticence regarding the use of such capabilities in New Zealand."

Minister in charge of the SIS Andrew Little said he recognised New Zealanders were nervous about security agencies gaining unfettered access to personal data.

"Generally speaking, New Zealanders are nervous about security agencies having access, unfettered access, to a whole heap of data.

"I think New Zealanders just want to know if even though they've got an important responsibility to discharge, that there are some controls on it and that they know what sort of information they might want to have access to."

The government in last year's Budget put an extra $11 million into the SIS (and $39m into the Government Communications Security Bureau, which monitors the internet for threats). That was in addition to the $180m boost to the intelligence agencies over a four-year period to 2020.

Any boost to data mining powers had to be carefully audited, the review said.

Little said it was an important discussion, and he would consider any proposal from the SIS that was put on his desk.

"I take a view that any extension of powers has to be well justified. I haven't got a proposal about that, so I'll see what happens if and when I get it," he said.

"It seems that New Zealanders do have kind of a funny view that perhaps they do want more, but they don't want so much that it encroaches on them.

"At some point, we will have to find a way to kind of mediate debate and find out what actually it is that people are prepared to tolerate."