Spies request data from Trade Me

Licence to spill: Trade Me is receiving more requests from the Security Intelligence Service for information on its members.

Licence to spill: Trade Me is receiving more requests from the Security Intelligence Service for information on its members.

The Security Intelligence Service is increasingly asking for Trade Me's help to sniff out security threats.

Trade Me, which promotes itself as the place "Kiwis come to buy and sell", looks an unlikely place for the spy agency to turn for intelligence. The SIS's mandate includes protecting New Zealand from espionage, sabotage and subversion.

But Trade Me trust and safety officer Jon Duffy said it had received 28 requests for information from the SIS in the year to June 30, up from 13 the year prior, and it was looking at a similar increase in enquiries this year.

Duffy said all the requests had been for the purpose of enforcing New Zealand's Security Intelligence Act. A spokeswoman for the SIS said it did not comment on operational matters.

Trade Me also received more than 1600 requests for information from police last year, mostly in relation to stolen goods, drugs and fraud.

The company revealed in an August "transparency report" that it had been compelled to supply the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) with details of more than 44,000 traders. Duffy said that information was supplied to the department in September 2013.

It was understood IRD was keen to work out whether many of Trade Me's army of professional and semi-professional traders were declaring all the income they made through the site.

IRD spokesman Rowan McArthur denied the "bulk request" was a "fishing expedition", saying it was targeted at traders who met specific criteria. The information it collected was being used to support a "wide range of compliance-related activities", according to department information.

"These range from providing help and advice to … identifying instances of serious non-compliance. In more serious cases it can involve taking legal action against those who break the law," the department said.

Duffy said that because it was a bulk request, Trade Me could have notified members whose details had been released.

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Trade Me considered "at length" whether to do so, but "eventually made the decision not to inform members directly so as not to create undue panic or distress members unnecessarily, given that we would hope that the majority of people included in the release are unlikely to be investigated as they will be paying tax".

"There was also a concern that ... could enable members to calculate the thresholds at which Inland Revenue becomes interested in tax avoidance/evasion. We expect Trade Me members to meet their tax obligations and do not want to provide the tools to avoid these obligations."

Duffy said Trade Me had not seen a similar-sized request from the tax department since.

"Typically, Inland Revenue's requests are based on enquiries being made into individual members for tax purposes."

He expected Trade Me would field about 60 requests from IRD this year, based on the number it had received since July.

Trade Me was "for the most part pretty comfortable" with the reasonableness of requests and demands for information it received from government agencies, but did not want agencies to go on fishing expeditions. It had rejected about 1 per cent of requests, he said.  

Trade Me was a "pretty dumb place" for people to engage in criminal activity because of the footprints that would leave, Duffy said.

"Members should be aware that public sector agencies have the ability to request or require Trade Me to supply information for law enforcement purposes and regularly do," he said.

 - Stuff

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