Under the Interception of Communications Act 2010, the telephone records of private citizens can only be obtained on directives from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), the Commissioner of Police, the Chief of Defence Staff, or the head of the Strategic Services Agency. The laws of Trinidad and Tobago strictly control such interceptions to safeguard the privacy of citizens, protect the rights of the innocent and prevent harassment by state agencies. Interceptions are to be authorised only when there is no other way to detect criminal or subversive activities that threaten T&T’s national security. Under law, there are very limited instances when such methods can be used investigate, prevent or detect a specified offence.
Viewed against the backdrop of those laws, last weekend’s report of the acquisition of a journalist’s phone records by the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA) from telecommunications provider TSTT is cause for alarm. Not only is this a violation of the privacy of a journalist in a country where freedom of the press is guaranteed under the Constitution, but it appears there has also been a flagrant breach of the law. The alleged action of the CDA is not benign and is totally out of place in a democratic state.
Personal information in the wrong hands can be misused, as has been the case in many authoritarian states where investigatory and other agencies use it for extortion, to embarrass people and to rob them of freedom. Citizens of T&T should not be facing such a threat—or even the perception of it. Less than two years ago, the country witnessed the swift drafting and passage of the Interception of Communications Act after dramatic revelations in Parliament by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar about the tapping of the phones of large numbers of citizens, including journalists and opposition politicians. During debate on that legislation, many spoke at length about the harm that could be done when information is acquired by such underhand means.
The lesson that should have been learned from that experience is how easily democracy can be put at risk because technology can be easily used to curb personal liberty, privacy and free speech. The data apparently obtained by the CDA had nothing to do with a criminal or terrorist threat to that agency, or to T&T. The intent seemed to be to find out, by surreptitious means, the source of information contained in a newspaper report which showed the agency in a very bad light.
In this age of rapidly evolving technology, data on the calling and called number, time of call and duration, is collected automatically by phone companies. Unfortunately, there is great potential for such data to be used by authorities to find out about associations between people, their characteristics and—with GPS technology now so widespread—even their location. Maps, navigation aids and other location-based services are common and constant generation of location data now easily reveals a person’s activities and associations, far more precisely than used to happen when wire tapping was the only means of accessing such.
The potential for abuse is frightening, so it is not surprising that seven directors of the CDA have since distanced themselves from the apparent leak of the phone records. TSTT officials are promising a thorough investigation and swift action. However there remains that troubling, unanswered question. How is it that the Interception of Communications Act, which is supposed to safeguard citizens, could have been so easily flouted? Not just the CDA, not just TSTT, now need to move quickly to deal with any unlawful interceptions and put systems and policies in place to prevent a recurrence.