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Communtity Law Manual | Activism | Keeping your personal information private: Some practical advice

Surveillance and monitoring of activists by the state

Keeping your personal information private:
Some practical advice

The use of surveillance devices is regulated in New Zealand, however technology and human error can allow your personal information and data to be collected and used by others. Everyone has the right to privacy.

    • Keep your devices secure: ensure that all of your physical devices (phone, laptop, tablet, etc) are protected by a password or fingerprint scan that locks immediately when the device is not in use. If they are lost, stolen or seized, they cannot be accessed by anyone else.
    • Using encryption: data should be end-to-end encrypted for data safety and security. On a smart phone, applications like Signal and WhatsApp allow for encrypted messages, calls and video calls as well as disappearing messages. A “lock” icon on the status bar of your internet browser means your information will be safe when it’s transmitted. If a website or app is asking for your personal information, credit card details or other financial information, be alert and ask why this information is being gathered.
    • Logging off: when you are using public devices (such as a computer in a public library) ensure that you log out of all of your accounts. On your phone, close applications that are not in use. Check your phone privacy settings and turn off “location services” when you are not using an application.
    • Social media: ensure that your privacy settings are regularly checked and updated in order that information you do not want shared is kept private. Share only personal contact and data that is really necessary. Facebook regularly updates its default privacy settings meaning that you need to keep a close eye on what others can see about you.
    • When posting to social media, be aware that it is monitored by police, intelligence agencies, corporations, hackers and even employers: all of whom are interested in gathering information. Things you say can be used against you, and you may not have the benefit of being able to explain that you were ‘just joking around.’
    • Online tracking: be aware that services (such as Google) and websites can track your activities across the internet. For example if you are logged into Gmail or Facebook and conduct google searches, this information is gathered and stored. Using a search engine such as DuckDuckGo, using a browser like Firefox or even using the TOR browser can all be ways of minimising the data gathered about you.
    • Offline: ensure that you do not keep passwords written down in easy to access places, that personal documents and identification are stored securely, and that you are discrete when using PIN numbers and other passwords in public places.
Surveillance by the government: An official reminder to government bodies of your right to protest

Review report: Inquiry into the use of external security consultants by government agencies

In 2018 some government organisations came under official fire for their surveillance of activists. An independent review criticised them for their use of private investigators and for generally treating activists as the enemy rather than as people exercising their legal and democratic rights to advocate for their political beliefs.

The review said that in acting this way these government organisations had breached the State Sector Code of Conduct – this isn’t a law, but all public servants are supposed to follow it as part of their jobs.

“Inappropriately close relationships” with private investigators monitoring activists

A summary of the review report was put out by the State Services Commission (the department responsible for leading and improving the public service – and now called Te Kawa Mataho / Public Service Commission). The summary said:

“The inquiry uncovered system-wide failings across the public service, including a pattern of behaviour where public servants developed inappropriately close relationships with TCIL [a private investigator company that also worked for the oil/gas industry] and some evidence of poorly managed relationships with other providers.”

The review comments included in particular the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (“MBIE”), the super-ministry that deals with the petroleum and minerals area, as well as employment, immigration and other areas. The State Services Commission said:

“MBIE’s conduct as a whole breached the code of conduct by failing to maintain an appropriate level of objectivity and impartiality that the code requires. … The Inquiry looked at TCIL’s reporting to government agencies on ‘issue motivated groups’, which treated those groups as a security threat. Among the groups were Greenpeace, the Green Party, the Mana Movement, and some iwi groups in Northland, the East Coast and Taranaki.”

In other words, MBIE was too close and friendly with oil and gas companies and took a hostile approach to activists.

New official standards for government agencies to follow

In response to this review, in late 2018 the State Services Commission put out new additional standards for government organisations to follow. You can read them at

The SSC said: “The new standards – Information Gathering and Public Trust – set out minimum expectations on how public servants should gather information for regulatory compliance and law enforcement.”

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