Alongside proposed legal provisions for interception of digital traffic by police and other agencies, the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) is drawing up a plan to require all public telecoms networks -- voice and digital -- to be capable of interception.
"This was an issue that arose under the last government," says David King, MED telecoms policy manager. This was at the request of the police, who were concerned that Vodafone mobiles' encryption did not permit interception of voice messages.
"It has still not been resolved, but we are working again on the issue and expect to be reporting to government before the end of this year."
The timing is such that any new law to this effect may be tackled during debate over possible new laws required as a consequence of the government's telecommunications inquiry, King says. Any new provisions will be under the Telecommunications Act, and will be separate from any law permitting interception of digital traffic.
"We're not concerned whether people should or should not be able to intercept communications; just that the technical capability (to intercept) should be there."
A proposed law amending the Crimes Act will tackle the permission aspect. Here interception provisions are in tandem with measures making it an offense for anyone apart from the authorized agencies to intercept digital communications or hack into computer systems.
These measures are intended primarily to "enhance individuals' privacy protection," according to a statement by senior policy advisor Vivienne Morell at the Justice Department.
An amendment to the Crimes Act, about to be tabled in parliament, will add offenses of "unauthorized access to a computer system" -- more commonly known as hacking -- to previously introduced offenses of dishonest use of, and damage to, computer systems. The older measures are part of the Crimes Amendment Act No 6 Bill, currently with the Law and Order select committee.
The proposed new measures, also in the form of an amendment to the Crimes Act, also make it an offense to intercept e-mail and fax communications. It has long been an offense (under section 216A to 216E of the Crimes Amendment Act 1979) to intercept voice communications.
More public attention, though, has been directed at the exemptions to the anti-hacking and anti-interception clauses spelling out entitlement for police, SIS, Government Communications Security Bureau and Prison Service to intercept e-mails -- the last covering prison inmate communications.
A Vodafone spokesperson says any decision on how it might modify the encryption in its network to make it possible to intercept calls is some way away.