Police blunder unmasks secret files

18:01, Feb 20 2013

A police blunder in a major drugs investigation has revealed the identity of confidential informants and undercover officers and their secret intelligence-gathering techniques.

A Southland Times investigation has discovered that the serious breach occurred after police handed over heavily censored electronic documents to those charged in the investigation.

But, as one of the defendants quickly discovered, the blacked-out sections of the documents can easily be restored to view, revealing the highly sensitive material.

Hundreds of heavily censored files relating to Operation Canary have been given to the seven people charged after a long police investigation into commercial cannabis growing in southern New Zealand, but the blacked-out sections in many of the electronic files are easily unmasked.

Police have now applied to the Invercargill District Court for an urgent order that the faulty files be handed back and a tentative hearing time has been set for tomorrow morning.

Legal sources say the police blunder is extremely serious and has the potential to put the lives of informants at risk.


One document, an affidavit supporting a High Court application for search, seizure and surveillance warrants, records the details of an informant considered particularly reliable because of his role in an earlier case that led to the conviction of a senior gang member for violent crimes.

Those details are blacked out in the pdf file the police provided, but text under the black screen placed over it is revealed by the simple process of copying the file into another document.

Lawyers say the Operation Canary security breach is not the first by police and points to widespread sloppy and incompetent electronic file-sharing processes. The files in which the confidential sections can be revealed have been provided from three separate police districts, even though some police have known about their insecure electronic masking systems for several years and in at least one other instance two years ago were also forced to go to court to recover faulty files.

One Invercargill lawyer said the security breach with the Operation Canary files would have caused consternation within the police when they found out what had happened. The lawyer, a former Crown solicitor, said the names of confidential police informants and sensitive investigative techniques were so closely guarded by police that even Crown lawyers were not given access to the information.

"I have stood in the Appeal Court arguing the Crown case for a warrant that had large sections of the police affidavit blacked out without knowing what those redacted [blacked out] sections contained."

The faulty Operation Canary files were handed over by police under the evidence discovery process, whereby a defendant can request police evidence through his lawyer. One of the accused took a copy of the disk supplied by police so he could review the evidence and found some files would reveal all the blacked-out sections when copied into a word document.

"It took about three mouse clicks to get through some of the blacked-out stuff - even a kid could do it," he said.

"In about 430 documents a lot could be copied so that all the blacked out text could be reinstated. That's a major security breach by the police IT department, who have basically given out information about informants, police techniques and all sorts of stuff. "They've got major egg on their face and have gone to my lawyer with cap in hand asking for everything back."

Once police found out about the gaffe, two detectives visited the man's lawyer to ask for the return of the documents and when that was refused police lodged an application to the court.

The man said he believed he had good reason not to hand the documents back without a fight.

"I'm not interested in revenge on any of these informants or anything, but this information can definitely be used in my defence. Information was provided by police informants in 2004 and 2005, which was then used to get search warrants in 2011, and that information is not even accurate. It says ‘This guy might be involved' or "This guy maybe done this,' so doesn't even stand up. So we'll definitely be challenging the search warrants that were issued based on that information."

The correct way to black out sensitive information in electronic documents is a simple process and some government departments have learnt from earlier mistakes. ACC board minutes supplied under the Official Information Act two years ago are heavily censored but can be unmasked to show, among other things, then chief executive Jan White's report on an ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. Recent documents from ACC do not show such electronic sloppiness.

The Education Ministry though, embroiled in the Novopay scandal, only three weeks ago responded to accusations of secrecy in its dealings with Australian software provider Talent2 by loading detailed meetings minutes on to its website.

The files had been censored extensively to conceal names and other confidential information, but as soon as those files were copied into another document everything was revealed. That blunder brought a firestorm of ridicule on the ministry by Twitter users and the files were removed, processed properly and reloaded on the ministry website - though not before many of the files had been copied in uncensored form into publicly accessible internet dropboxes.

Police say correct procedures not followed

Police last night acknowledged they appeared not to have followed correct procedures when releasing the redacted documents to defence lawyers in the Operation Canary court cases but said they believed it to be an isolated case.

A statement by southern district commander Lane Todd said the incident was being taken ‘‘very seriously’’ and was the subject of an ongoing investigation. Police would act on any ‘‘learnings’’ from that investigation. However he did not believe  the privacy or safety of any individual has been compromised.

‘‘Security of information is central to every aspect of police work and there are robust processes in place for protecting information held by police,’’ Inspector Todd said.  ‘‘In disclosures of this kind a paper hard copy should be provided instead of an electronic copy. This did not happen in this instance.’’

He refused to comment further as the matter was still before the court. 

The Press