Wednesday, July 10, 2013

NZ Government Joins the Paranoids

I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded” ~ Edward Snowden

In my last post I wrote about the death of free speech and privacy in America.  This post is about the same thing happening in New Zealand.

New Zealand has always been a relatively free country, at least in terms of political and social liberties.  We were one of the first countries to give women the vote, we treated our conscientious objectors reasonably during the world wars, we decriminalised homosexuality before most other Western nations and from time to time we have tolerated a fair amount of political dissent with equanimity.  We have been relatively immune to the paranoia about national security that has infected America and other major Western nations since 9/11, an infection that has led to an unparalleled and unconstitutional expansion of government powers and made every petty bureaucrat and policeman believe he has a mandate to act like a school yard bully. Unfortunately the New Zealand Government finally has been infected with this craziness and is set to expand the powers of its Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to include surveillance of New Zealand citizens.

The GCSB Amendment Bill is being enacted because the Bureau was found to have acted illegally in monitoring the communications of Kim Dotcom, a New Zealand resident.  The Government's response to this crime was not to prosecute those responsible in the GCSB but rather to make what they were doing legal.  The new Bill allows the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders not only for matters of national security but also for the "international relations and well-being of New Zealand" and the "economic well-being of New Zealand." Furthermore, it allows the GCSB to do so on behalf of any other NZ Government agency or any "public authority (whether in New Zealand or overseas)" or "any other entity authorised by the Minister [in charge of the agency]". This is a hugely broad mandate and, given that the GCSB has already proven it will interpret the law to the point of breaking it, I think it is safe to assume it will be following the Americans' practice of monitoring all domestic and international communications that passes through any NZ telecommunications network. The only other person involved in reviewing such warrants (and only in the case of domestic surveillance) is the Commissioner of Security Warrants, a bureaucrat appointed by the Government.

I have heard commentators from both the political left and right say that if you have nothing to fear if you are innocent, but that misses the whole point.   The fact that some people commit crimes is not a reason to assume everyone does and that all of us should be watched and listened upon by the government.  Such is the culture of the former Soviet Union and Communist East Germany and that prevails in North Korea today.  As US historian and political commentator Dan Carlin said in a recent podcast on the subject, the reason we have our toilets in the bathroom rather than the living room is because we expect privacy when we go to the toilet.  It is not just a personal freedom but requisite of self-respect to go to the bathroom in private. Prisoners are often denied this right for the very reasons that it emphasises their loss of freedom and destroys their self-respect.

We shouldn't have to justify our right to privacy, whether it is the privacy of going to the toilet or the privacy of our communications.  The government derives its just powers from the people, not the reverse.  It is not the legitimate role of the state to know our every move, conversation, opinion or whether we are having an affair with our best friend's wife.  Until and unless the state has probable cause that we have committed, or will imminently commit, a serious crime, it has no business invading our privacy.  And to have any meaning, 'probable cause' must be assessed by an independent judicial authority, not the bureaucrat carrying out the invasion of privacy or the prime minister authorising it.  The process of issuing such warrants and ultimately the warrants themselves should be open to public scrutiny.

The GCSB Amendment Bill is an unnecessary and imprudent expansion of the surveillance powers of the state in this country.  Like Edward Snowden, I do not want to live in a world where everything I say or do is recorded by government bureaucrats.  I thought New Zealand was relatively immune to the madness that has infected the rest of the world.  I'm ashamed and a little frightened to discover I was wrong.

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