Police say that budget leaks not unlawful

Police have conformed what has been widely claimed already about the budget leak – they say the information was obtained by ‘exploiting a bug’.  What? Online viruses exploit bugs, but that doesn’t make them lawful.

Whatever the law says on this, questions about the ethics of National publicising the material they obtained remain. As has been pointed out, they could have highlighted the flaws in information security without abusing the budget process.

Stuff:  Budget leaks ‘not unlawful’, no further police action

In a statement ahead of Thursday’s budget and an expected press conference from the National Party where leader Simon Bridges was to explain how he got his hands on budget information early this week, the Treasury said that police had advised that “an unknown person or persons appear to have exploited a feature in the website search tool” – but that this “does not appear to be unlawful”.

Police are therefore not planning further action, but the State Services Commission will undertake an inquiry into the issue.

The Treasury said it and and the GCSB’s National Cyber Security Centre has been working on establishing the facts.

“As part of its preparation for Budget 2019, the Treasury developed a clone of its website. Budget information was added to the clone website as and when each Budget document was finalised,” it said in a statement.

“On Budget Day, the Treasury intended to swap the clone website to the live website so that the Budget 2019 information was available online. The clone website was not publically accessible.

“As part of the search function on the website, content is indexed to make the search faster. Search results can be presented with the text in the document that surrounds the search phrase.

“The clone also copies all settings for the website including where the index resides. This led to the index on the live site also containing entries for content that was published only on the clone site.

“As a result, a specifically-worded search would be able to surface small amounts of content from the 2019/20 Estimates documents.

“A large number (approx. 2000) of search terms were placed into the search bar looking for specific information on the 2019 Budget.

“The searches used phrases from the 2018 Budget that were followed by the ‘Summary’ of each Vote. This would return a few sentences – that included the headlines for each Vote paper – but the search would not return the whole document.

“At no point were any full 2019/20 documents accessible outside of the Treasury network.”

The Treasury said the evidence shows “deliberate, systematic and persistent searching of a website that was clearly not intended to be public”.

So there seem to be problems that need resolving.

But what about what National did with the information they obtained?

Lawyer Stephen Price yesterday – Budget leak: Nats’ behaviour “entirely appropriate”?

I’ve just been listening to Simon Bridges’ press conference at Parliament about the budget leak. His main point was to deny that the leaked budget material was a result of a hack. But he made the broader claim that the Nats’ behaviour throughout was “entirely appropriate”. He said there had been “nothing illegal or anything approaching that from the National Party.” He denied that their conduct was at any point unlawful.

I think he’s wrong. I think the Nats have probably engaged in  unlawful behaviour from the get-go. That’s regardless of whether the budget material they released was hacked. The Nats have broken the law relating to Breach of Confidence.

That’s not a crime. It’s a civil claim, like defamation or negligence. But it is the law.

If information is confidential in nature – that is, not in the public domain – and was created and shared in circumstances in which those possessing it knew is was supposed to be confidential, and was then disclosed without permission, that’s a breach of confidence. That obligation of confidence will usually bind anyone else who comes into possession of the information.

There is a public interest defence. That’s what usually protects the media when they receive leaks. Otherwise, as you might have noticed, almost all leaks to the media (especially from employees with clear obligations of confidentiality) fall foul of this law. But usually, there will be some substantial justification the media can use. They will be able to point to some significant way the public is being served by the release of the information that would otherwise be protected by the obligation of confidence.

Is there public interest here? I can’t see it. The information was to be publicly released in two days. The National Party could freely criticise it then. How are the public really made better off by learning of these criticisms two days in advance? Is there really any benefit to a matter of legitimate public concern that overrides the obvious – and perhaps even constitutional – confidentiality that attaches to budget papers?

Nor can National argue that it needed to release the information to hold the government to account for its bungling in allowing the leak. It could have made that case without actually releasing the data.

I think there is a better argument that it was against the public interest for National to have publicised the budget information they obtained.

What could National argue? The best I can come up with is: “We felt it was in the public interest to prick the balloon of spin that the government was floating about the budget being a ‘wellbeing’ budget, and itself revealing bits of it in advance, by providing the public with information that revealed these claims to be misleading. In this we were fulfilling our constitutional duty to hold the government to account. And we didn’t release any market sensitive information.”

I don’t think that works. They could make those arguments in two days time and the public would be no worse off. I also note that it turns on the accuracy of the criticism. If the numbers are wrong, or taken out of context, or do not really reveal any misleading government behaviour, that would undermine any attempt to say that the releases were in the public interest. Finally, the fact that the National Party was drip-feeding the leaks tells against any claim that the public needed to have the information urgently and couldn’t wait two days for the budget.

Treasury has been embarrassed by the leak of budget information, whether it was obtained legally or not.

I think that National could have acted with integrity in pointing out the flaw, but they went much further than this by playing politics – they acted on heir own interests rather than public interests. Except that if the public doesn’t like the way they have done things it may not be in their own interests.

I don’t think it enhances Simon Bridges’ leadership credentials. If he wanted to prove himself as a responsible leader he would have highlighted the bug without exploiting it for some short term (two day) political gain.

 

 

 

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43 Comments

  1. lurcher1948

     /  30th May 2019

    We are talking about Simon Briges here,integrity dosnt exist when you are clinging to your position with your finger tips

    Reply
    • Ray

       /  30th May 2019

      Looks like some of yesterday’s tweets and comments by the usual suspects have not aged well.
      Winston “illegal “, the PM “figures totally wrong”, the Treasurer “illegal and all Nationals hacking fault” looks like leaving mud on faces.

      Reply
      • Blazer

         /  30th May 2019

        none as serious as Mr Bridges ability to punch himself …in..the face!

        Reply
      • Ray

         /  30th May 2019

        The timeline on this is interesting as it shows the Treasury must have known how the information obtained on Tuesday because they made the changes then to make the information unviewable .
        So the doubling down yesterday was really on a known lie.
        I see the usual suspects are changing their attack line to “well it was unethical”.
        Except they forget this was being embargoed just to make a big splash on Budget day, it won’t have any effects on the market which is what the embargo is designed for.

        Reply
        • Blazer

           /  30th May 2019

          Treasury is not the Govt….Ray.

          Reply
          • patupaiarehe

             /  30th May 2019

            Exactly Blazer. Bridges is just barking at every passing car, as per usual. A cock-up by some techie working for Treasury meaning Robertson needs to resign, is just ridiculous.

            Reply
            • Kitty Catkin

               /  30th May 2019

              I don’t remember this righteous wrath from these people when it was Simon Bridges on the receiving end after his details were leaked or hacked, whichever it was.

  2. Complete nonsense. If you’re complaining about this you’re complaining that our parliamentary system is oppositional and not collaborative. You can dislike our competitive system but then that’s what you should criticise. Under an oppositional system Bridges needs to steal attention away from the govt and focus it on himself. This was an opportunity to do that. Could he look good while doing it. Probably not, but Jacinda could and there lies the difference. Winston Peters would have played this hand much better ,but he only needs to appeal to 5%. Life is tough as opposition leader and you have to take what opportunities come along.

    Reply
    • Blazer

       /  30th May 2019

      ‘Bridges needs to steal attention away from the govt and focus it on himself. ‘

      well send him a funny hat to wear…then.

      Reply
  3. David

     /  30th May 2019

    Bridges was doing his job, this government is all spin they shape the narrative and get away with doing less than nothing. We will get all this “wellbeing” this and that today but the reality will be more like what Bridges is pointing out…tanks and trees and stuff for Peters and there will be cash thrown at various social problems with no actual plan or way of measuring if they are effective.

    Example: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/112063598/children-continue-to-wait-several-months-for-early-intervention-services

    $21.5 million extra for a poorer result from a government focused on “wellbeing” and this is a microcosm of the budget which is why Bridges is right to go public, its his job.

    Reply
  4. NOEL

     /  30th May 2019

    Oh well Simon has now set a precedence. If you are in opposition budget confidentially has no meaning.

    Reply
    • David

       /  30th May 2019

      Sure, because if Robertson had got hold of English,s budget he would have kept it quiet and informed Treasury of the website issue.

      Reply
  5. Trevors_elbow

     /  30th May 2019

    Oh look. A leftie lawyer claiming a civil breach. Wow what a surprise. It’s not hacking.

    National receive information and decided it was in the Public Interest and their duty as the Opposition to disclose the information.

    It’s all good. It’s not hacking….

    Reply
    • Patzcuaro

       /  30th May 2019

      More National’s interest rather than the public interest as the information was going to be published today anyway.

      Reply
    • Duker

       /  30th May 2019

      That was Jami lee Ross defence
      “….. receive information and decided it was in the Public Interest and their duty as the…. to disclose the information. ( few days early)
      Guess who went on a witch hunt because it came early and accused labour of doing the dirty ?
      Were you so generous about JLR ‘doing his duty’

      Reply
      • Trevors_elbow

         /  30th May 2019

        JLRs issue was he was a traitor to his own party trying to topple a leader for personal benefit. Bridges use of transport was within the rules and no issue.

        Reply
        • Kitty Catkin

           /  30th May 2019

          It was an issue not because of what the information was but because it was a confidential document (at the time) and had been leaked or hacked deliberately and broadcast by Slithy Tove O’Brien.

          Reply
  6. Patzcuaro

     /  30th May 2019

    “St Simon, aka Simon the Zealot, is one of the most obscure among the apostles of National Party. According to one prophecy he preached in and will be martyred in Wellington by St Judith. The exact day of the feast is no known yet but the scribes are preparing for itp.”

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  30th May 2019

      If you think Labour wouldn’t have jumped on it if positions were reversed just say so, Patz. So we can smile.

      Reply
      • Duker

         /  30th May 2019

        This ‘feature’ of the Treasury website has been like that for a long time , for each budget.
        Did Labour even exploit that . Answers your own question!

        Thats the answer to your question.

        In the rukus over this National also ‘Did a Mueller’ and did a part release of their internal bullying report- the remediation only. Whats the guess Bridges will say its ‘been released’ and nothing more to say .
        Slippery!

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  30th May 2019

          Who says it’s been there for a long time? They loaded the live index with secret data – obviously stupid. How long have they been that stupid for?

          Reply
          • Duker

             /  30th May 2019

            “Who says it’s been there for a long time? They loaded the live index with secret data – obviously stupid. How long have they been that stupid for?”
            Thats the same format the budget pages have been for some years.

            Your IT knowledge is shaky. The Live data was still secret, the index wasnt( with a ‘few words around’ the word looked for) and it took 2000 index searches to get the small amount of data they had.

            probably a standard method for some time as I said, as you want the index to be fully operative from the moment of release.
            We KNOW this is the standard method as Nats were using index words from previous budgets to narrow down the areas they were after.

            I often use the URL bar for ‘modified’ page results for Netflix for example ( the special codes used for type of movies I like- their web page wont tell you the codes but other sites list them)
            I didnt know it would work in a similar way for an index of embargoed data

            Reply
            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  30th May 2019

              The only way for that data to get into the live index was for an active operation to put it there from the secure server. The only thing standard was the documents’ format which made it easy to guess how to search the index. Pre-loading the live index created a disaster waiting to happen. Who knows when that mistaken strategy was adopted.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  30th May 2019

              Pretty fatuous, B. When a website search dishes up information to you on a legal search it’s obviously been put in the public domain and published whether by accident or intent. End of story.

        • Gerrit

           /  30th May 2019

          “Did Labour even exploit that .”

          Assumes that Labour are smart enough to have known about the open door to a public space. Not sure they have the smarts for that.

          Reply
          • Kitty Catkin

             /  30th May 2019

            Well, they didn’t have the sense to make sure that the people on the cover LIVED HERE.

            Reply
  7. Blazer

     /  30th May 2019

    you expect irresponsible behaviour like this from the National Party….they have the morals of a brazen, truck stop waitress.

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  30th May 2019

      National have a history of this …. they exploited ‘a feature’ of the labour party website and that wasnt public information.

      Reply
    • Kitty Catkin

       /  30th May 2019

      Those insinuations about Paula Bennett are disgusting and sexist. Being a waitress does not make someone immoral or brazen; how dare you imply such things about her ?

      Reply
  8. Zedd

     /  30th May 2019

    ‘ooh look.. we found/were handed something on this Govt. we had better yell it from all the rooftops’.. politics 101 OR just gutter-politics/petty point scoring ?

    Im guessing with Natl slumping to about 40% in the polls.. they figured ‘anything to try & get a few back’ even if it included obvious ‘mud-slinging’ too :/

    Reply
    • Zedd

       /  30th May 2019

      Bridges/Paula are looking DESPERATE for anything to improve 😀 😀 :/

      Im guessing they too, are happy they were not implicated in anything ‘untoward’ ??

      Reply
    • Zedd

       /  30th May 2019

      I just watched part of a press conf. (TV3+1) Bridges showing ‘how easy’ it was to find the budget data.

      A journo. asked (paraphrased) ‘BUT just because you can.. does it mean you should’ : like seeing a neighbours house door open & just going in to help yourself

      Bridges demanding that Treasury Sec. & Robertson should RESIGN !
      methinks he needs to take a looong, hard look in the mirror ?!
      childish, temper tantrum stuff :/

      Reply
  9. Alan Wilkinson

     /  30th May 2019

    To make the blatantly obvious political point, the police statement was rushed out to pre-empt Bridges getting the reveal. Chuckle.

    Reply
  10. Alan Wilkinson

     /  30th May 2019

    Audrey Young now calls for Mahklouf’s head for lying:
    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12235651

    Political journo’s switch attack now Bridges’ is exonerated.

    Reply
  11. Alan Wilkinson

     /  30th May 2019

    Just to confirm their blundering embarrassment Treasury mistakenly hands out early copies to the Press Gallery:
    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12235784

    Reply
  1. Police say that budget leaks not unlawful — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

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