you're reading...

Surveillance of Animal Rights Activists

Search and Surveillance Bill (2009)

In an alarming development for anyone concerned about civil liberties in New Zealand, the Search and Surveillance Bill, currently before Parliament, will extend powers previously available only to Police to any state agencies with enforcement powers, of which there are 70. This includes, for instance, Work and Income New Zealand and the Pork Industry Board.

I’ve posted recently about the nefarious activities of the Pork Industry Board here in attempting to avoid their obligations under the Official Information Act 1982.

There have been widespread protests against the bill which strips away civil rights hard won over centuries in one fell swoop:

  • Perhaps most disconcerting, the Justice and Electoral Select Committee has just reported back to the house supporting the proposed power of police to install concealed cameras in houses. This is a licence to enter your property, plant recording equipment and watch whatever you get up to in your own home. The police will be able to covertly film people for up to two months with a warrant, and three days without a warrant in “limited circumstances”. The same criteria will be applied as that which has previously needed for a one-off search. In Canada, the US and most western European countries, video surveillance is only allowed if it can be demonstrated that all other possible avenues for obtaining evidence have been exhausted.
  • ‘Residual Warrants’ allow state agencies to use any new surveillance technologies, even if Parliament has not yet passed guidelines as to its use.
  • ‘Examination and production’ orders will force people to surrender documents and report for compulsory questioning. Say goodbye to your right to silence. These orders could easily be exploited to harass activists who are accused (falsely or not) of relatively minor infractions such as trespass.
  • Warrantless searches can be carried out on the dwelling of anybody detained by Police.
  • Police and the seventy other state agencies (yes, even the Pork Industry Board) will be able to take anything in ‘plain view’ (and under case law in NZ, this is a highly elastic definition) during a raid without having to specify it in a search warrant.

Case in Point: The Ongoing Harassment of Rochelle Rees

No doubt we will be assured by agencies wishing to use these considerable powers that they will be invoked with restraint and only in situations where there is serious risk to public safety. But let’s consider this, taking in mind the type of surveillance to which animal rights activists have been subject in the recent past.

In December 2008, the extent of state spying on animal rights, environmental and peace groups was exposed when Rob Gilchrist was discovered by then-girlfriend Rochelle Rees forwarding email messages to the Police. It was revealed that he had been paid $600 per week plus expenses in cash by the Special Investigations Group (SIG) of the NZ Police, headquartered in Christchurch, to infiltrate animal organisations and to act, by many accounts, as an agent provocateur. Over the course of his engagement with the police for almost ten years, Gilchrist must have claimed (as a very conservative estimate) at least $300 000. The SIG were interested not only in planned activities but also pressed their ‘man on the inside’ for details of the personal relationships and sexual activities of members of the groups. We can only guess at the uses to which such lurid details would be put.
This was an awful lot of expense and trouble to go to. And for what? Gilchrist himself, when asked if he thought the activist groups were security threats, said: “No, of course not. I know they are good people trying to make a better world.”

Earlier this month, Ms Rees was in the news again. This time, after attending the court appearance of a fellow activist, she saw a small black box attached to the underside of her car with magnets. This was not a slick job, she saw the box as she was walking up to the car and immediately detached it to take a closer look. The box was a tracking device which used similar technology to that of a mobile phone to transmit the location of the car to a third party. The device was traced by the Sunday Star-Times to Thompson & Clark Investigations, a private investigation and surveillance firm. According to the article:

Rees said the campaigners were upset but not surprised at finding the device “given the past spying we’ve had to put up with from Thompson & Clark.” They were relieved they were able to spot it so easily: “Whoever put it there was incompetent, there’s no other explanation.”

When questioned about this incident in Parliament, the Agriculture Minister (and later the Pork Industry Board) denied having had any knowledge of Thompson & Clark Investigations planting a device on Ms Rees’ car.

No-one has yet admitted to hiring the firm but they have been caught out doing similar jobs before:

In May 2007, the Star-Times revealed Thompson & Clark had been paying two students to infiltrate small environmental, peace and animal rights groups on behalf of state coal miners Solid Energy and other clients.

The students were paid to write reports on the campaigners’ meetings and plans, and to set up systems redirecting internal group emails to the private investigators.

They were also caught in April 2008 trying to recruit a man to spy on activist groups. Rees said she thought it was “very likely” that the same firm was spying on them and Hans Kriek, director of Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE), is “99.9%” certain that Thompson & Clark were responsible given that the pair have been focused on uncovering conditions in commercial piggeries.

Perhaps the question is not whether we are paranoid but whether we are paranoid enough?

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.


2 thoughts on “Surveillance of Animal Rights Activists

  1. Hi Vernon, a couple of questions:

    Firstly which Minister or individual is behind this proposed bill and what do opposition parties think?

    Secondly is there a place to view the list of 70 agencies?

    Luckily no one is actually waging an animal rights campaign, in fact most topical issues around animal misuse and breaches of the animal welfare act are “welfare” issues, in which case if they are threats to society then the SPCA can expect themselves to be under surveillance also. Fair’s fair. I’m not aware of any group actively saying animals deserve a bill of rights. Granted, there are “animal rights” groups, but I don’t actually think their actions and campaigns are actually for rights at this point in time, merely for the decade old animal welfare act to be worth a grain of salt.

    Posted by AaronC | 17 August 2010, 12:09 am
  2. Hi Aaron,

    Police Minister, Annette King tabled the bill.

    Opposition parties are pretty much unanimous in opposition. A good summary of the counter arguments can be found in Keith Locke’s (Green Party) speech in the House at the bill’s first reading. Locke has also suggested that a provision could be added to the bill to prevent surveillance by private companies.

    You can read the interim report on the bill here.

    It’s lengthy (442 pages) but should address any other questions you may have.

    The agencies to be empowered are in Part 5 of the bill.

    Posted by Vernon Tava | 17 August 2010, 5:23 pm
%d bloggers like this: