Next, conversation monitoring

The National Police Agency’s white paper for 2014 has stressed the need for police to consider the introduction of conversation monitoring — as distinguished from ordinary communications interception — as a new means of investigation.

In ordinary communications interception, a special device is connected with a communications circuit to pick up telephone conversations, text messages through email, and so on. In conversation monitoring, a tiny transmitter would be installed somewhere to eavesdrop on people who the police think have committed or are going to commit a crime.

A panel for reform of criminal investigation and trials under the Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice minister, has already decided to increase the scope of crimes for which investigative communications interception should be used and to introduce a communications interception system that doesn’t require the presence of a person from a communications service provider.

If the introduction of conversation monitoring is allowed, the danger of criminal investigation infringing on people’s privacy will increase. At the very least, well-informed in-depth public discussions that include both citizens and legal experts should be held to determine whether the new investigation method is really needed.

For instance, the police are thinking of employing the method for investigating crimes committed by gangsters and bank transfer fraud, in which a person posing as a relative of a targeted fraud victim telephones the latter to have him or her transfer money from the victim’s bank account.

A mini-transmitter would be installed in a place that bank transfer fraud perpetrators use as their operation base, in an office of an underground organization, or in a car used by leaders of such a group.

In a method called controlled delivery, a mini-transmitter could be placed inside a package of narcotics or stimulant drugs. If the package is opened after delivery, the transmitter would start picking up the conversations of those involved.

A court-issued warrant would specify the place where a transmitter could be planted and would limit the types of conversation that the police could use to build a case to statements connected with a crime.

One big question, though, is how to guarantee that investigators will strictly follow the conditions set by such a warrant. Is it not possible that the police would plant mini-transmitters to keep a watch on activities of labor unions and civic groups?

Thus conversation monitoring carries the danger of the police violating basic human rights such as freedom of speech, thought, expression and assembly as guaranteed by the Constitution. The white paper also says the police will consider introducing undercover operations, in which investigators assume a false identity to gather information from suspects.

The white paper says that the police will try to get public support for their attempt to adopt conversation monitoring, controlled delivery and undercover operations.

Behind the police’s attempt to start using these new investigative methods is the fact that in some crimes, such as bank transfer fraud, it is difficult to identify suspects. Moreover, police fear that expansion of the practice of electronically recording interrogations of criminal suspects will make it difficult for investigators to obtain meaningful confessions.

In addition, it is becoming more difficult for investigators to obtain useful information from door-to-door questioning because of weakening human relations in communities, and large numbers of investigators born in the postwar baby boom are retiring, making it difficult to pass down investigative skills to younger generations of police officers.

Although the police’s concerns may have some merit, the new investigation methods being considered by them could increase the danger of the police conducting unjustified surveillance activities on ordinary citizens.

The police should exercise self-restraint in their attempt to introduce these methods. They should concentrate on improving police officers’ investigation capabilities within the bounds of the current conditions.