The eye of the (government) spy

The eye of the (government) spy
What we're putting down now is laying the foundation for how the government treats New Zealanders in the future.

What we're putting down now is laying the foundation for how the government treats New Zealanders in the future.

I was deeply disappointed (but not at all surprised) by John Key’s dismissive attitude towards privacy concerns when faced with submissions against changes to the GCSB Bill, which governs New Zealand’s spy agency of the same name.

In early July, some of New Zealand’s brightest technological, entrepreneurial and legal minds spoke up against the amendments that grants the agency a wider scope for spying but provides little oversight in return. The Prime Minister’s best comeback was the use of hyperbolic and hypothetical terrorist attacks.

How would you respond to the families of terrorism victims if these changes aren’t made, asked Key of one submitter.

For good measure, he threw in the old adage that the public has nothing to fear if it has nothing to hide, at one point even suggesting that people could always encrypt their data if they were that concerned about privacy breaches. Let’s remember, this is the same man who lanced the Labour Government of 2007 for its Electoral Finance Bill and its possible effects on New Zealand’s democracy.

Aside from the fact that the Telecommunications Interception Communications and Security (TICS) Bill would make this a difficult task for even an experienced cryptologist, the idea of average New Zealanders having to learn 4096-bit security methods to send pictures of their kids to relatives overseas is abhorrent.

There are many people with reasons to hide, who also have reasons to fear. As a journalist I often work with sources whose livelihoods require them to be anonymous, often from government departments. [Ed: Sim was Idealog's tech editor before he joined Vend's marketing department] How do I guarantee to them the spooks won’t be looking at their communications with me? As we found out with Peter Dunne, even the to and from fields and frequency of emails is enough information to use against a person.

If we’re playing the Prime Minister’s game of hypotheticals and slippery slopes, we should also consider what will happen if (or more likely, when) a future government abuses the GCSB and TICS legislations against its own citizens.

Thomas Beagle of civil liberties group Tech Liberty said during his impressive submission to the government that the GCSB and TICS legislation changes are being made under one government, but will be used by those of the future – and we can’t guarantee the good intent from those decades down the line.

Every chip, slice and wedge of privacy we hand over to the government is another we’ll find impossible to claw back. There needs to be sufficient transparency and oversight with the GCSB and TICS Bills to make sure these legal tools originally prescribed to secure our borders aren’t used to protect the government’s behind against its citizens.

What we’re putting down now is the foundation for how the government treats New Zealanders in the future. The crux of the matter is, should we all be treated as terrorists in the making or given a presumption of innocence, dignity and privacy?

I know what I prefer and I can only hope the government will come to its senses before we let the hypothetical terrorists of the Prime Minister’s mind win by default.