Much discussion has taken place around the legalities of bloggers accessing data and then publishing it on the web. We’ve heard plenty about the complexity of this issue from the bloggers’ perspective. But little about the complexities facing bloggers’ targets or police investigators.
For this post I will use the Blomfield v Slater example as a case study.
A compliant was made to the police about the illegality of Mr Slater possessing and publishing copies of Mr Blomfield’s property. They declined to lay charges because of no clearly defined reasons in the law. I think that they were mistaken in their understanding of the Crimes Act.
I have had access to the court documents that Mr Blomfield has filed in his defamation proceedings against Mr Slater. I am a supporter of Mr Blomfield’s. I have assisted him with his case and the issues relating to Mr Slater. But this is my opinion of the law as I see it, backed up by some very intensive research.
Judge Blackie asked a very pointed question of Counsel for Slater last year during the defamation case: “So did Mr Slater steal the hard drive?” Mr Williams (lawyer acting for Slater) responded: “No he did not.” Judge Blackie rephrased the question: “So you’re telling me that Mr Blomfield gave it to you or said you can have it? I will ask you again, did Mr Slater steal the hard drive?”. Mr Williams did not respond.
After reading this exchange, I asked Blomfield: “How did Slater get the hard drive?” His response: “I don’t really know. One of Mr Slater’s sources, Mr Warren Powell, had it then it ended up with Slater”. I have read Mr Blomfield’s initial witness statement to the NZ Police and this is what he told them then. As always, Slater has different and varied twists in his explanations. None appear to have any legal validity.
Mr Blomfield is upset and concerned about Slater’s possession and use of material relating to Blomfield, and this is at the kernel of the case.
The material comprises all Blomfield’s physical files that were stored in two filing cabinets in an office he shared with Warren Powell of Hell Pizza. It relates to his private businesses, including confidential client, financials, and commercial data, as well as computer equipment containing electronic material such as his emails, personal files and data, including numerous photographs and videos.
The material essentially comprises almost every record (hard copy or electronic, business or personal) of Mr Blomfield’s life for the previous 10 years or so. In this digital age it is not unusual for the content of people’s computer hard-drives and data storage facilities to contain their most personal and private details.
It is difficult not to feel considerable sympathy for someone in a situation where another person(s) sees fit to gain access to and copy such material without any permission or authority from the owner of the material to do so. Equally, it would be surprising if such action did not constitute a criminal offence.
There does not appear to be any dispute that Cameron Slater has made for himself an electronic copy of all of the material belonging to Matthew Blomfield.
Slater’s blog-site posts headed “Blomfield files: free to a good home” (dated 14/5/12 but now removed) stated, inter alia, “I have now copied all of the Blomfield files onto a portable drive. It is just over 1Tb of juicy dirt.” Other material posted or referred to by Slater on his blog-site can only have originated from Blomfield’s personal material (both hard-copy and electronic).
In the submission for Mr Blomfield a strong argument has been made that, in copying Mr Blomfield’s private and personal data (i.e. physical and electronic data which comprises tangible and intangible “property” as defined in section 2 of the Crimes Act 1961), Slater has committed at least three Crimes Act offences:
To prove that Slater committed the offence of receiving under s246 of the Crimes Act, it is first necessary to prove that the property he received was stolen or obtained by other criminal means, and that Slater knew, or was reckless, about the manner in which it came into his possession.
The evidence I have reviewed does not positively establish the identity of the person who took Blomfield’s property and made it available to Slater to copy, or the circumstances in which he took possession thereof (although the evidence obtained by Mr Blomfield gives a strong indication of this person’s identity). Accordingly unlawful “taking” cannot be established.
Having possession or control over the physical property and in some way making the property available to Slater to copy would seem to satisfy the ordinary usage of the broad terms “using or dealing” in s219(1)(b) of the Crimes Act. The decision in Davies (Daniel) v Police  1 NZLR 638 confirms that there can be a “use or dealing” with intangible property (see also Adams on Criminal Law at CA2.29.01).
However, dishonesty must also be proved, on the part of the provider and the receiver of material obtained without its owners’ consent. It would be difficult for the person who made the material available to Slater to argue any belief that its owner Blomfield consented to it being uplifted and provided to Slater.
Intent to deprive the owner permanently of the property or any interest in the property must also be established (see Adams at CA219.05). That the person made the property available to Slater to copy, together with the fact that the person never returned or made any effort to return the physical property to Blomfield would prima facie be sufficient evidence to satisfy the “intent to permanently deprive” requirement.
There is also a strong argument in terms of s219 (2) (a) that there was an intent to deal with the property in such a manner that it could not be returned in the same condition (i.e. uncopied); and that in terms of s219 (2) (b) there was an intention that the owner be deprived of a property interest in the property (i.e. the right to exclusive possession of the electronic material contained therein).
To prove that Slater unlawfully received the property (or part thereof) as well as proving that the property had been stolen, it would also need to be proved that, at the time of receiving, Mr Slater had knowledge thereof or was reckless as to the manner it was obtained and provided to him. .
Given the nature of the material, and the fact that it was not provided to him by Blomfield (or anyone authorised by him), it would be difficult to argue that Slater was not at the very least reckless as to whether the material was stolen when he received and copied it.
Slater may argue that he never “received” the property. Receiving requires possession and control over the property. On the evidence it is difficult not to conclude that Slater did not come into physical possession of the property, at least temporarily, for the purposes of copying it. On his own website, Slater indicates that he has copied both electronic and hard copy material owned by Blomfield. It would require at least temporary physical possession of the original hard copy material to make copies.
In terms of electronic files, Slater has made the admission: “I have now copied all of the Blomfield files onto a portable drive.” Even if this was done from a supplied electronic copy of the original Blomfield files, a strong argument can be made that Slater’s “copying” of a copy can properly be found to be an act of dishonesty. This argument is set out in detail below in addressing whether a charge of theft can be proved against Mr Slater.
The offence of theft as amended in 2003 now also includes unlawfully dealing with property that was previously considered to be conversion. The actus reus element in s219(1)(b) of “using or dealing” with the property is broad enough in its plain language to cover copying, and as already set out case law confirms that there can be a “use or dealing” with intangible property. Adams notes (at CA2.29.01) that criminal dealings with intangible property can now be the subject of charges of theft, obtaining by deception and the like.”
The first mens rea element for theft is dishonesty, which is focused on the absence of belief in consent to carry out the use or dealing with the property from a person entitled to give such consent. The only person entitled to give such consent here is Blomfield and, accordingly, there is no basis for Mr Slater to argue any such belief in consent.
The second mens rea element is that the actions are done without claim of right or belief that the acts were lawful. While Slater may seek to adduce evidence of a claim of right there is no obvious claim of right on the face of the facts here for copying the personal and private material belonging to Blomfield, or for viewing it, or for posting blogs about it.
The third mens rea element is intent to deprive the owner permanently of the property, or any interest in the property. While it may be submitted that that there was no intention to permanently deprive because the original was not taken or deleted but merely copied, there is a strong argument that copying the property does (and should) amount to depriving the owner permanently of an “interest in the property”. This interest is the owner’s right to have exclusive possession and control of the property and data that has been provided to a third party without the owner’s consent. The argument would be along the following lines:
A major protection of property interests is the criminal offence of theft and its derivative offences. This protection has a long history of responding to new forms of property mirroring change in societal relations and technological developments.
The 2003 changes to New Zealand’s “Crimes against Rights of Property” in the Crimes Act were a direct response to uncertainties in the application of property offences, in light of rapidly developing computer and networked technologies.
The focus of theft law has been moving from the protection of possession towards the protection of the right of property. The property right is not a single right but a bundle of rights drawn from private law and economic practicalities, which can accommodate differing conceptions of ownership and intangible property. (see Wayne Rumbles, “Theft in the digital: can you steal virtual property?”).
One right comprising part of the bundle of rights in relation to material held on electronic media, is the right to exclusive possession and use of the material. If another person is able to copy the material for themselves they gain the same property interest as the true owner, whose property rights are thereby permanently reduced.
Today, there is no practical distinction between an electronic “original” and an electronic “copy”. Ordinary persons would consider the actions of a person who copies the private electronic data of another for themselves without permission to be “Data theft”. The term commonly used to encompass such behaviour.
I would suggest that taking a copy of private electronic data amounts to depriving the owner permanently of an “interest in the property” for a dishonest purposes is theft under the Crimes Act.
Section 249 of the Crimes Act makes it an offence to directly or indirectly access a computer system to dishonestly obtain any property, privilege, service, pecuniary advantage, benefit or valuable consideration, or cause loss to any other person. (italics added)
Section 248 defines “computer system” as including, inter alia, a computer, 2 or more interconnected computers, and includes all related input, output, processing, storage, software, or communication facilities and stored data.
To “access” includes to receive data from, or otherwise make use of, any of the resources of the computer system. This broad definition of “access” would appear to cover copying material on a computer system; and the words “directly or indirectly” would make any defence that Mr Slater may have never been in physical possession of the property, untenable.
The physical items on which the electronic data was stored here (computer, hard drive, etc.) are part of Blomfield’s computer system: his historic electronic data is stored on them; and the broad definition of “computer system” in the act includes “stored data”.
Section 249 requires obtaining (or attempting to obtain) property, privilege, service, pecuniary advantage, benefit, or valuable consideration; or causing loss to any person. While it might again be argued that no “property” has been obtained – merely copies made – the wide definition of “property” in section 2 of the Crimes Act would appear to cover copies.
Section 252 of the Crimes Act makes it an offence to intentionally directly or indirectly access a computer system knowing that there was no authorisation to do so or being reckless as to the same.
For the reasons above, there is a strong argument that Slater has directly or indirectly accessed Blomfield’s computer system. Unlike s249, with s252 dishonesty does not need to be proved. It just requires proof of intentional accessing and proof that the person knew they were not authorised to access the system (or were reckless). There appears to be no basis for Slater to argue that he was authorised to access the computer system where clearly no authorisation was given by Blomfield. At the very least that his actions were reckless.
The New Zealand Police have been asked to review the decision not to issue criminal proceedings in relation to the taking / copying and using of Blomfield’s personal and private data.
I personally think that what Mr Slater has done is unconscionable and the thought of an individual having access to every aspect of someone’s entire adult life is appalling. In this fast changing world the NZ Police – and the law itself – are understandably struggling with the complexity of the new electronic age.
The Slater v Blomfield battle continues but its progress to date indicates that – at the end of the day – some landmark decisions may be made on the complex nature of intangible property, of theft, of receiving, and of dishonest use of data obtained without its owner’s consent that will establish new rules of engagement in the era of digital media.
We can but hope. Because what Mr Slater has done here is morally, ethically and, I contend here, legally wrong.
lprent: This post is subject continuing legal processes. So it will be fully moderated.