By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
ATTORNEY General Allyson Maynard-Gibson yesterday defended the Interception of Communications Bill as an important anti-crime tool that would enhance the privacy of law-abiding citizens rather than encroach upon it, as detractors claim.
The bill will allow the commissioner of police, or a person acting on his behalf, to obtain a warrant from a Supreme Court judge to intercept and examine a person’s communications from telecommunications operators, internet providers and postal services.
In a statement yesterday, Mrs Maynard-Gibson explained that this move was unprecedented in Bahamian law as it placed authority solely in the hands of the independent judiciary, adding that the ICB met international standards and also addressed recent criticisms of the Listening Devices Act by the Privy Council.
She said any suggestion that the legislation was a “spying bill” was false.
“The Interception Communications Bill is a very important tool in the fight against crime, much of which is gang related, transnational and involving guns and drugs,” the statement read.
“Experts advise that without this crime fighting tool, drug trafficking, gun trafficking and other transnational and gang related crime, will increase and the police will be hampered in their ability to detect and investigate crime and prosecute criminals.”
The statement continued: “The ICB recognises that forms and modes of communications in today’s world are materially different from those contemplated in 1972 when the Listening Devices Act was passed and continue to rapidly change.
“The ICB will enable the police, with the permission of a Supreme Court Judge, to lawfully intercept electronic communication of any kind, once certain clearly defined conditions are fulfilled.
“The ICB enhances protection of the privacy of law-abiding citizens because it is the Supreme Court - not the executive - that makes the determination that the communications may be intercepted,” the statement read.
“This is the first time that Bahamian law places this authority solely in the hands of the independent judiciary. The Supreme Court will ensure that adequate checks and balances are in place to protect rights of privacy on the one hand and combat crime - including cyber crime - on the other.
“Any suggestion that this is a ‘dangerous spying bill’ is false,” it added.
Criticism of the Listening Devices Act by the Privy Council, according to Mrs Maynard-Gibson, was that permission for interception should be granted by the Supreme Court and not the government; that there were provisions for the destruction of records once they had served their purpose; and also the constitutionality of the legislation, advising that the scheme should be revisited and revised.
Mrs Maynard-Gibson pointed to other countries with similar legislation, like the United States, St Lucia, and Jamaica, noting that the Bahamas was in step with the worldwide community.
The bill’s tabling last Wednesday has led to considerable pushback from activist groups, like the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association and environmental group Re-Earth, both of whom have advocated heavily on social media to “kill the bill”.
In its statement yesterday, the Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG) stated that its concerns did not rest solely on the contentious content of the bill, adding that its “quiet tabling” was also “deeply worrying”.
ORG advised that it has engaged civil society and private industry groups to develop an informed stance and course of action on the ICB, and encouraged interested groups to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The group urged lawmakers to stay the bill until all stakeholders could be educated on the contents of the bill and provide feedback.
The organisation pointed out that similar bills in other countries, like Australia, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, have gone through open development phases with the government seeking expert consultation as well as input from the public.
It also pointed out that the open nature of investigations and research surrounding the bill’s development was done to ensure it best serves the people and national security.
“Bills of this nature have historically presented a number of human rights concerns,” the ORG statement read.
“The UN high commissioner for human rights states in a paper on the matter that ‘even the mere possibility of communications information being captured creates an interference with privacy, with a potential chilling effect on rights, including those to free expression and association,’” ORG said.