New cyber-monitoring measures have been quietly introduced giving police and Security Intelligence Service officers the power to monitor all aspects of someone's online life.
The measures are the largest expansion of police and SIS surveillance capabilities for decades, and mean that all mobile calls and texts, email, internet surfing and online shopping, chatting and social networking can be monitored anywhere in New Zealand.
In preparation, technicians have been installing specialist spying devices and software inside all telephone exchanges, internet companies and even fibre-optic data networks between cities and towns, providing police and spy agencies with the capability to monitor almost all communications.
Police and SIS must still obtain an interception warrant naming a person or place they want to monitor but, compared to the phone taps of the past, a single warrant now covers phone, email and all internet activity.
It can even monitor a person's location by detecting their mobile phone; all of this occurring almost instantaneously.
Police say in the year to June 2009, there were 68 interception warrant applications granted and 157 people prosecuted as a result of those interceptions.
Police association vice-president Stuart Mills said the new capabilities are required because criminals were using new technologies to communicate, and that people who weren't committing criminal offences had little to fear.
However, civil liberties council spokesman Michael Bott said the new surveillance capabilities are part of a step-by-step erosion of civil rights in New Zealand.
Police Minister Judith Collins responded to questions from the Sunday Star-Times about the new surveillance capabilities, saying: "I support the rule of law." In last year's budget she approved extra police funds to subsidise companies wiring surveillance devices into their telecommunications networks.
The measures are the consequence of a law, the 2004 Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act, which gave internet and network companies until last year to install devices allowing automated access to internet and cellphone data.
Telecom, Vodafone and TelstraClear had earlier 2005 deadlines, and new cellphone provider 2degrees installed the interception equipment before launching last year.
Official papers obtained by the Star-Times show that, despite government claims that it was done for domestic reasons, the new New Zealand spying capabilities are part of a push by United States agencies to have standardised surveillance capabilities available for their use from governments worldwide.
While US civil liberties groups unsuccessfully fought these surveillance capabilities being used on US citizens, the FBI was lobbying other governments to adopt them. FBI Director Robert Mueller III told a senate committee in March last year that the FBI needs "global reach" to fight cyber-crime and terrorism and that co-operation with "law enforcement partners" gives it "the means to leverage the collective resources of many countries".
Auckland lawyer Tim McBride, author of the forthcoming New Zealand Civil Rights Handbook, says our politicians had let down New Zealanders when they yielded to the foreign pressure and imported US-style surveillance into New Zealand.
He said "monitoring email, internet chatting and Facebook is like the police and SIS planting bugs in every cafe and park. It would probably help solve a few crimes, but the cost is just too great".
The 2004 New Zealand law, which mirrors laws overseas, requires the content of any communication plus "call associated data", such as times, phone numbers, IP addresses and mobile phone locations, to be able to be copied and sent to the police, SIS or Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) at the time of transmission or "as close as practicable" to that time.
In practice, a specialist said, this means someone's email can be "at the agency within one or two minutes of it actually being on the wires".
When the police and SIS were pushing for the interception capability law they argued repeatedly that it would not "change or extend in any way the existing powers".
But civil libertarians say that the invisibility of electronic surveillance reduces the opportunity to challenge it.
A technician familiar with the developments said the previous surveillance technology dated from the early 1980s when the Telecom phone system went digital. Police bugged individual phones and could request suspects' call logs.
More recently police had taken a warrant to telcos and gone away with printed emails, but did it rarely as there were problems using the evidence in court.
"This is the first big jump from there," said the technician.
"They've never had the powers to force ISPs to build in spying capabilities before now. I imagine law enforcement is very excited about this."
- Sunday Star Times