4 Dec 2022

Immigration Minister questioned over knowledge of Cobwebs use

7:32 pm on 4 December 2022
Labour MP Michael Wood

Immigration Minister Michael Wood says the Cobwebs tools are not used to perform 'surveillance scans'. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The immigration minister says he was briefed about the use of social media searching technology around the same time RNZ first reported it.

RNZ reported on 12 October that Immigration New Zealand has been using Israeli-US surveillance firm Cobwebs Technologies to monitor Facebook, Twitter and other platforms for at least two years.

Answering to Green MP Teanau Tuiono's written parliamentary questions, Minister Michael Wood said he was briefed about this "in early October".

Teanau Tuiono

Green MP Teanau Tuiono Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Officials met the Privacy Commissioner on 28 October to talk about Cobwebs but did not consult the commissioner before commencing use of the technology in 2019/20, though they did do a privacy impact assessment early on.

Wood said the tools were not used to search the dark web and were highly unlikely to access hacked information.

Cobwebs provides dark web monitoring technology if it is wanted, according to its website.

Wood refused to say which Cobwebs tools Immigration New Zealand uses as that might compromise the "effectiveness of the tools in mitigating significant risk".

"The Cobwebs tools are not used to perform 'surveillance scans' of any type," he said.

"This description is simply not accurate."

Four staff within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment intelligence, which operates the Cobwebs tools on behalf of Immigration New Zealand, were specially trained in their use. All ministry staff had training on privacy.

No data collected by Cobwebs had been shared overseas with the Migration Five (M5) and Border Five (B5) groups, which relates to the Five Country Conference for co-operation on migration and border security, between the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK.

Internal documents suggested that on occasion it might be.

"The Cobwebs tools are used in a specific and targeted manner, to collect and analyse publicly available information pertaining to aspects of risk for which Immigration New Zealand has a clearly defined role and legislated responsibility that does not sit with any other government agency," Wood said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs