When I became an MP in 1999, there was a pretty relaxed attitude to security. Visitors to the parliamentary complex had to explain their mission, and were given an appropriate lapel sticker to wear on their travels around Parliament. Parliamentary staff were required to show their ID.
MPs were lucky – we could walk around without ID, unchallenged. I felt sorry for new staff in security who somehow, from their first day on the job, had to recognise all 120 MPs by sight. I would see these newbies behind their desks furiously swatting up on a photo chart of all MPs. And not all MPs looked, in the flesh, the same as in their photos.
There were also security staff dotted around the complex to stop ordinary members of the public going into places they shouldn’t. I didn’t need a swipe card to get around, and there were no swipe card readers in the 20-floor Bowen House complex, where I had my parliamentary office.
After the New York World Trade Centre was attacked security started to tighten, as happened elsewhere in the world. Eventually, swipe cards were introduced and I had to use one to ride the lifts in Bowen House, and to enter my own office floor. In Bowen House, signs were put up warning us to take our swipe cards to the toilet, because they were needed to get us back into the office area.
I started to notice a difference when I was walking around the parliamentary complex late at night. I would rarely meet a soul, and initially I wondered where the security was? Then I remembered that all the entrances and corridors were now being monitored by video cameras, visible to security people in the control room, who could presumably also monitor our swipe cards. A couple of times, when I accidentally tried to get into the wrong room with my swipe card, I wondered if this error was being registered in the control room, and whether I could get into trouble.
However, despite knowing a bit about parliamentary security, it still came as a shock when I learnt that Parliamentary Service had assembled and released a swipe card record of journalist Andrea Vance’s movements around Parliament. Andrea was simply doing her job, yet Parliamentary Service was tracking her movements, and also collecting and passing on some of her phone and email detail. The partisans of the surveillance state often say: don’t worry about all the information we collect on you, because if you are acting within the law nothing bad will happen to you. Clearly bad things have happened in Andrea Vance’s case. She and other journalists will now find it more difficult to keep their sources confidential.
Parliamentary Services’ breach of United Future leader Peter Dunne is equally concerning. The Prime Minister said that Dunne should have handed over his email exchanges with Andrea Vance because he was a Minister. However, my presumption is that the main reason Dunne was provided with a copy of the Kitteridge report was because he was the leader of United Future (and in this capacity a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee). His correspondence with Andrea Vance is likely to have been on his parliamentary email, not his Ministerial email – although I could be wrong. The Prime Minister has no right to breach the privacy of an MP’s email traffic.
How easily the convenience of modern computer systems is turned against us. Just because it is more economical for Parliamentary Service to have all MPs emails on one big server this doesn’t give the Service the right to pry into the activities of the elected servants of the people.