Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A private Stasi

The State Services Commission has released its report into the use of "external security consultants" (aka Thompson and Clark Investigations) by government agencies, and it has revealed some very disturbing behaviour. Various agencies used Thompson and Clark as a private Stasi, to spy on earthquake victims, sexual abuse victims, and most disturbingly, activists and political parties (including both the Greens and the Mana Movement). And Thompson and Clark had a disturbing habit of hiring public servants in key agencies for secondary jobs, creating serious conflicts of interest with their public sector duties. Several criminal investigations have now been launched, including one into Thompson and Clark's infiltration and recording of a private meeting of earthquake victims (potentially breaching both the Crimes Act 1961 and the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010), and one into MPI staff's secondary employment as Thompson and Clark "intelligence analysts" (and their abuse of MPI resources to perform that job). All state sector agencies have also been issued formal guidance on information gathering and the public trust which outlaws anti-democratic surveillance - something you think they would have got the message on in 2008. Agencies have also been reminded that they can not sidestep legal safeguards (e.g. requirements for search warrants) by outsourcing. None of that seems to be coming back on Thompson and Clark themselves, but they are being removed from the government procurement list (meaning no more government contracts for them), they've had their access to the NZTA database revoked, and their name is effectively mud.

All of which is good. The question is whether government agencies get the message this time, since they clearly didn't in 2008. But more importantly, given the depth of the surveillance Thompson and Clark has been found to be conducting against Greenpeace for its private-sector clients (including details of hundreds of people, places and vehicles supposedly connected to the organisation, gained by infiltration, deceit, and in some cases abuse of government resources), there's a clear and compelling case that the entire industry needs tighter regulation. This sort of surveillance, whether conducted by the government or the private sector, undermines democracy. It corrodes people's trust in one another and impedes their exercise of their political rights (which is the point). We wouldn't let the government do it. So why should we let the oil industry do it through a private Stasi? Businesses like Thompson and Clark, whose service is explicitly anti-democratic, need to be made illegal and put out of business.

Meanwhile, there's some interesting information buried in the subsidiary correspondence. First, that in April the police denied using external security consultants at all. When that lie was exposed, SSC recommended that the Independent Police Conduct Authority investigate (pages 15 onwards). It is unclear why this didn't happen, and why the police launched their own (non-independent) inquiry instead. And sadly, there's no mention of it at all in the internal correspondence police have released. But maybe there'll be more context when they release their report, which should hopefully be soon.