Editorial: Hidden depths of stupidity

Our police are dangerously incompetent censors.

Before their files are handed over to court defendants under the rules of disclosure, police are permitted to black out sensitive names such as those of informants and undercover officers, as well as some intelligence-gathering procedures.

So you'd think they know how to do that.

You'd be wrong.

Hundreds of files relating to a major investigation into commercial cannabis growing in the south were released to seven defendants with blacked-out bits aplenty. But lookee, lookee. Many of those protective screens just vanish in a puff of ineptitude when the files are copied from pdf into another document, leaving the original text revealed.

You'd have to work harder to penetrate a supermarket scratchie.

Today police will seek an urgent order in the Invercargill District Court to have the faulty files handed back, but the drug defendants have already had ample opportunity to pore over the very names and operational details police didn't want them to know.

Bad enough, had this been the first disclosure of the blackout problem. But it surely isn't.

The ACC and, more recently the Ministry of Education, have been caught out. Even the police themselves, two years ago, were forced into the utterly humiliating task of going to court on a similar basis.

So it's a lesson unlearnt and not just by one person, given that these latest files came from not one but three police districts - Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

All you have to do is google "redact" and you'll find some years ago the Americans discovered the broad problem and quickly made changes to ensure protection. These were discussed throughout the online world.

Why aren't our Government electronic surveillance experts providing proper briefings for our departments and ministries, rather than peering into the world of Kim Dotcom for our American friends?

The right way to black out information in electronic documents is neither a secret nor difficult. It's a two-step process. The mistake is to apply only the first step, essentially whacking the screen over the sensitive bits, without the second one, which is to copy it as a single image into a new pdf file. Then there's nothing beneath the black bits.

Indications are that some police districts are getting it right so it's more of an unco-ordinated mess than, shall we say, uniform ignorance.

This is such an important issue. It may well be that the defendants in this recent case have no interest in revenge but how many potentially violent and vengeful characters in other cases, past and present, might now have reason to go back through files that have been released to them, just to see what turns up?

Police were last year revealed to have been willing to mount fake prosecutions of their undercover agents, the better to enhance their criminal credentials.

Justifying the debasement of our justice system on the basis that undercover agents' safety trumps all was a specious argument even then. Right now it rings especially hollow given the risks that who knows how many of those people have been facing because too many police don't quite know what they're doing.

The Southland Times