Privacy commissioner seeks answers from police over Facebook hacking scandal

One of the offending posts, featuring pop star Miley Cyrus and a NSW officer, which was found by police during unlawful monitoring of a private Facebook page. Photo: suppliedPrivacy Commissioner Elizabeth Coombs has weighed into a hacking scandal that saw NSW Police illegally monitor a Sydney man’s private Facebook page.
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Rhys Liam Halvey was arrested and charged with six offences relating to offensive posts which he allegedly uploaded onto a closed Facebook account.

But when Sydney magistrate Roger Brown discovered how police had unlawfully entered the site, he branded their conduct as a “criminal offence”.

Even after Mr Brown aired that warning, one of the state’s most senior police tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene with two separate affidavits addressed to the magistrate, which relayed support for the actions.

The Sun-Herald can reveal that Dr Coombs has now become involved, writing to her police counterpart, Commissioner Andrew Scipione, requesting details about the investigation it is running.

“The matter has been brought to my attention,” Dr Coombs confirmed last week.

“NSW privacy legislation provides the NSW Police Force with an exemption for its operational functions. However, given their serious nature, I have written to the Commissioner of Police seeking an update on the progress of the investigation into the allegations made.”

Last month, The Sun-Herald revealed how NSW Police Senior Constable Daniel Moss began spying on a closed Facebook page belonging to a “Rhys Brown” using someone else’s user name and password.

After four months of surveillance, Mr Halvey was arrested and charged in March last year with three counts of using a carriage service to offend police and a further three counts of publishing an indecent article. The “indecent” posts included a racy image of the American pop star Miley Cyrus superimposed on a photograph of a serving officer, which had been taken in a Sydney street.

When Mr Brown warned that the “unauthorised access” amounted to a “whole array” of possible offences under section 308 of the NSW Crimes Act, a senior ranked police official stepped in with with one “confidential” affidavit and another open. He also requested that Constable Moss be excused from further cross-examination “about how certain Facebook posts were obtained”, adding it would be “injurious” to the public interest if “those questions were to be answered”.

Earlier, an adjournment had been sought so the Crown could argue the “public immunity aspect” of certain police “methodology” used to “access data”.

But Mr Brown said: “Police methodology doesn’t permit the police to commit crimes, it’s as simple as that.”

Police have since withdrawn the case. In ordering $14,429 in costs ordered against the police, Mr Brown described their conduct as “reprehensible” and the charges as “trivial”.

NSW police told The Sun-Herald an investigation into the matter was “ongoing.”

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