The Speaker gave a response from parliamentary Services regarding filtering of emails after a complaint from Chris Hipkins yesterday.
Parliamentary Service—Email Security Facility
Mr SPEAKER: Honourable members, yesterday Chris Hipkins raised in the House the blocking of an email he wished to send to a journalist. I undertook to look into the matter and come back to the House. The secure, encrypted email system known as SEEMail exists primarily to encrypt emails exchanged between State sector organisations. SEEMail also prevents classified information being inadvertently sent outside of participating organisations. SEEMail has been in use in Parliament since 2007.
Mail filters look for the words “SEEMail”, “restricted”, “sensitive”, or “in-confidence”, which are attached to emails and documents at the choice of the sender. It then applies encryption to the email and attachments before sending them. It does not otherwise scan or store the content of emails. I have been given an absolute assurance that the Parliamentary Service email system does not scan members’ emails other than for spam filtering, viruses, and SEEMail classifications.
SEEMail is primarily used by Ministers and their departments who need secure, encrypted communication, but it currently applies to everyone with a @parliament.govt.nz email address. It blocks any email with a SEEMail security classification being sent to someone without that classification. The concern raised yesterday was that SEEMail’s system could hinder a member from carrying out his or her duties.
Members must be free to send and receive information as they see fit. No other agency should be involved in determining how members deal with the information they hold. That approach is consistent with the findings of the Privileges Committee when it reported on the use of intrusive powers within the parliamentary precinct.
Equally, it is important that members are able to communicate securely, safe from external cyber threats. I have identified five possible solutions to the conflict between information security and the undoubted right of members to freely use information:
(1) a member may remove the SEEMail classification from an email or document they have received. This can then be sent anywhere the member wishes. Although this would have solved Mr Hipkins’ immediate problem, it does not address the wider issue.
(2) Ministers could instruct departments not to apply SEEMail security to information being sent to members who are not Ministers. Official Information Act responses should never be so classified in the first place.
(3) If members are not satisfied with these two solutions, Ministers could be given a separate email domain so that email as SEEMail applied only to them. That would require further discussion.
(4) Parliament could opt out of the system entirely; however, that carries with it considerable cyber-security risk.
A fifth possible solution, which does require further testing, is for SEEMail to be applied only to communications with participating SEEMail organisations, then members’ emails to journalists and the public would be sent freely and without scanning or encryption.
The matter is a fairly complex one and it cannot be resolved today on the floor of the House. It is, however, essential that it is resolved to the satisfaction of members, and that their ability to send and receive information is not in any way hindered. I will distribute this ruling to all members immediately. I intend to discuss it further with the Parliamentary Service Commission at its next meeting, and I would welcome representation from any members who wish to discuss this matter with me.
CHRIS HIPKINS (Senior Whip—Labour): I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand your desire to discuss this further and we will certainly take you up on that offer. Can I seek some reassurance from you that in the intervening period, while those discussions are taking place, members will not continue to be blocked from sending emails outside the system?
The issue I rose yesterday when discussing the very ruling that you have just made, with a journalist, the email that I was discussing the matter in was blocked from the journalist whom I was discussing it with.
So I was unable to answer any questions about the matter that rose yesterday because the system picked that up and blocked me from doing so. I had to print the email and hand-deliver it, in order for the journalist to be able to receive it. That is unacceptable, and I want some reassurance that in the intervening period that will be stopped.
Mr SPEAKER: If the member would just have a careful look at the ruling, the very first solution I give to him is that he himself can remove the classification. He may need some assistance to be shown how to do it, and that can be provided, but he himself can remove that classification—I am assured—and send it out.
CHRIS HIPKINS (Senior Whip—Labour): I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr SPEAKER: If it is a further point on this matter, I have said that this is a complex matter. It is not one affecting the order of the House. I will hear from the member, but I would prefer discussion on this to take place away from the floor of the House so that all members can understand it more clearly.
CHRIS HIPKINS: As was explained to me, any email containing the words “SEEMail” and “sensitive” will be blocked, so any discussion of the ruling that you have just made will, therefore, be blocked. We will not be able to do that via email.
Mr SPEAKER: No. I will have an IT person contact the member immediately after question time. [Interruption] Order! This is a serious matter. My understanding is that while it is blocked, unless the member makes an adjustment to his computer setting and takes the blockage out—[Interruption]—by removing the word “SEEMail”, then he can send it to the journalist of his choice.